Private schools weathering the aftermath of the financial crisis will be "murdered" if they fail to adapt, a high-profile corporate financial adviser and philanthropist has warned.
David Verey, Eton College governor and former head of blue-chip banking firm Lazard Brothers Co, told schools that the effects of the recession were yet to come.
Mr Verey, now non-executive director of investment firm LMS Capital, said the predicted plunge in pupil numbers was likely to be felt as late as September 2011.
"If you look back to the last recession in the early 1990s, it took 48 months before private schools really felt the effects," he told the Independent Schools Council's (ISC) annual conference in London this week.
Since January last year, there have been 12 private school closures and a series of mergers, but overall pupil numbers in the sector are yet to see a significant fall.
Speaking to The TES, Mr Verey stressed that hard times could open up new markets.
Research had shown, he said, that private education was "the last thing some parents would give up, after fine wines and holidays but before cigarettes".
He said: "There will be new markets for no-frills schools, where there are no facilities but good teaching.
"You bung the pupils in Portakabins and bring in good teachers."
He also said schools would increasingly be able to "plug the gaps" by making the most of the weak pound and bringing in more foreign pupils.
But he warned that this could fundamentally change the make-up of the school.
"School governors need to consider their intake policy. Is there a quota (for foreign students), do you want to remain a predominantly British school or do you open the floodgates?" he said.
The ISC launched its pre-election manifesto this week, which accused the Government of undermining the independence of private schools with over-regulation.
Leading headteachers also stressed that parents should not be made to feel guilty for sending their children to private schools, and insisted they were not simply for a "posh elite".
Andrew Grant, chairman of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference, which represents around 250 elite fee-paying schools, condemned wealthy families who claim the "moral ground" by sending their child to their local comprehensive.
He said: "It irritates me that there are people living in my own city in #163;3 million houses driving BMW 7 series, taking three or four holidays a year and sending their children to the local comprehensive, which is really really good because it draws on that particular catchment area, and feeling they have the moral ground.
"Why aren't they living in a council flat and driving a Trabant or whatever the latest equivalent is?"
ANOTHER PREP TO CLOSE IN WAKE OF FALLING ROLLS
A small independent school announced this week that it is likely to close at the end of the summer term because of falling rolls.
Managers at St Collette's Prep School in Cambridge said they had been hit by the recession, and had been operating at only around 60 per cent capacity for almost two years.
The proposed closure will affect 17 members of staff and 66 pupils, whose parents are being helped to find them places in alternative schools.
Mike Lander, CEO of the school's owner Piscari Learning, said: "It is a real tragedy that there is simply not enough demand to sustain the school."