Recession-hit independent schools that claim to be academically discriminating are quietly ditching selection criteria and effectively becoming fee-paying comprehensives as they attempt to remain full, it has emerged.
Experts have revealed that many private schools around the country - even those belonging to well-respected associations such as the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference (HMC) and the Girls' Schools Association - are dropping or paring back their selection criteria in a bid to fill places.
The news comes as a series of prestigious independent day schools in the North of England, including Liverpool College and the King's School, Tynemouth, last month announced that they will drop selection entirely next September, in exchange for becoming state-funded.
Market-watchers said that while the top 25 per cent of elite schools - including Eton College, Harrow and St Paul's School - still have waiting lists and take their pick of applicants, a swathe of schools from the middle to the bottom of the rankings are prepared to take weaker pupils.
The trend - which is understood to be mainly affecting day schools in the North, the West and Wales - reflects a strong geographical divide in how independent schools are being affected by the recession.
The most recent official figures from the umbrella body the Independent Schools Council show that pupil numbers are down in most regions. Only in Greater London and the South East are numbers up across the board.
Ian Hunt, managing director of Gabbitas, an educational consultancy that helps parents find appropriate independent schools for their children, told TES: "There is a section of schools in the mid- to lower tier - really good schools, still highly regarded in their area, good quality and value-added - that just don't have the catchment any more and they are having to be more open-minded.
"We recently had a pupil accepted by a school that wouldn't have touched her with a bargepole previously."
He said that even schools above "mid-table", which would previously have had no trouble filling their spaces, are sometimes ringing his organisation with "the odd space to fill".
"In HMC, Girls' School Association and Society of Heads groups, there are some schools that will be thinking, `We wouldn't have done this a few years ago, but let's take the chance,'" he added.
Boarding schools, he said, are able to plug gaps with overseas students, although that is a limited solution in the long term as schools do not want to change the fundamental character of their institutions.
One HMC head at a major school in the North, who asked not to be named, said: "There's open discussion among headteachers about this problem in a manner I have not seen before.
"There seems to be a massive divide opening up between the schools that can still be massively selective and those that can't."
Other heads confirmed the trend. Stephen Winkley, headmaster of Rossall School in Lancashire, which belongs to the HMC, said his school had gone "non-selective" during the recession in the 1990s, in a successful bid to boost pupil numbers.
Other schools, he said, were starting to follow suit during this recession because of financial imperatives.
Janette Wallis, senior editor at The Good Schools Guide, which runs an advice and placement service for parents, said they have also noticed academic standards easing up, particularly in the past year.
"We were trying to find a place for a girl whose GCSEs were very poor, mostly Ds and Es and a couple of Bs. I would have been amazed that any school would offer her a place, but we had well-thought-of schools who said they were willing to take a chance on her. I don't think that even a year ago that would have been the case."
Mungo Dunnett, a consultant who advises schools on weathering the recession, agreed that parents are finding it easier to get into their first choice of school.
"When parents are looking at two schools, they have one aspirational one and one as a safety net, and they are finding it a lot easier to get into the aspirational one," he said.
He added that he was picking up on a lot of "distress, shame and sadness" from parents who are being forced to trade down their children's private education - swapping from boarding to day schools to save money, for example.
William Richardson, general secretary of the HMC, admitted there might be a "softening" of entry criteria in schools in certain areas. "But they won't see it as some kind of game-changer in terms of the ethos of the school," he added.
He also stressed that HMC schools already embrace a wide range of entry criteria, from highly competitive and academically selective, to non- selective.
Taking the register
Changes to Independent Schools Council day pupil numbers from 2011 to 2012:
1,289 fewer pupils are shared by 168 ISC schools in the North of England
1,808 more pupils are shared by 192 ISC schools (191 in 2011) in Greater London
Source: ISC Census.
Photo credit: Getty
Original headline: Private schools give up on selection in bid to beat recession