Boarding schools could suffer "serious damage" to their pupil numbers if plans to cut back on education allowances for armed forces families go ahead, experts have warned.
Expected cuts to the continuity of education allowance (CEA) could cause "considerable repercussions" for schools as parents are forced to pull their children out of boarding education, said Boarding Schools' Association director Hilary Moriarty.
Currently around 7,900 children with parents on military postings around the world benefit from grants of up to #163;5,893 a term. This amounts to around 10 per cent of the UK's 71,000 boarders.
Parents must currently pay at least 10 per cent of the fees, but a review being published this spring is considering raising parental contributions, reducing the number of private schools in the scheme and cutting the length of time the grant is available for.
The Government also wants to reduce the #163;180 million cost of the perk by tightening eligibility rules and increasing the use of state boarding schools.
But a recent survey by the Army Families Federation found that around half of families would not be able to keep their children in their current school if they had to pay more.
Mrs Moriarty said: "In many schools, Ministry of Defence children make up a significant number of boarders. Their loss would be more dramatic in some schools than others, but the boarding market is already quite small.
"Reductions in the numbers of forces personnel eligible for the CEA, or in the value of CEA once awarded, would have a significant impact on the sector.
"If the allowance was too low and school fees rise as costs go up, there will be serious damage to schools."
Mrs Moriarty said that plans to move children to the country's 38 state boarding schools to cut costs would not provide an adequate solution, as there was not capacity.
"Choice would be severely limited," she said, "which is ironic in a time when the Government keeps talking about parental choice."
She said boarding was emotionally vital for many children: "For a child whose family is moving all over the world, this provides a solid body of people you know and friends you have made."
Other high-profile figures have also hit out at plans to make cuts to the grant.
Dr Anthony Seldon, master of Wellington College in Berkshire, which has 70 pupils from service families, said it would be "an act of quite exceptional folly" if the Government scrapped the allowance.
"My understanding is that large numbers would quit the armed forces if they couldn't take the benefit of that," he told the British Forces Broadcasting Service.
"This is not some kind of indulgence: this is absolutely core and basic to the maintenance of the education of those girls and boys."
The grant has long been derided by some as an officers' perk, although 2,480 personnel receiving the allowance for their children come from other ranks.
The Ministry of Defence said it was also planning to cut down on abuse of the system.
It confirmed it was investigating 16 service personnel regarding #163;300,000 of potentially fraudulent allowance claims at an independent school in Cornwall.
Claims relating to up to 50 children at the Gems Bolitho School in Penzance are being examined, although there is no suggestion that the school did anything wrong.
MILITARY CUTS - Under fire
Continuity of education allowance cuts are among the most politically sensitive moves ordered by the Treasury in plans to slash the #163;880 million armed forces allowances budget by #163;250 million.
As part of the plans, senior officers will also see cuts to their allowances for drivers, gardeners and cleaners.
Other allowances for travelling to sports matches and for young troops travelling home to their families could also be slashed.