Growing numbers of parents want to send their children to private schools because they offer "better moral standards" than state schools, Britain's biggest gathering of independent heads heard this week.
Pru Jones, head of research at the Independent Schools Council, said panic was growing about state schools and their behaviour problems. Worried by headlines about youth crime and bullying, parents increasingly sought the stricter discipline that they believe is on offer in fee-charging schools.
"There does seem to be a sense of coming to a haven of moral values," she said, explaining the growth in the popularity of the independent sector.
Members of the ISC, which represents about 1,300 independent schools, educating more than 500,000 children, were buoyed by a poll published at their annual conference in London.
The Ipsos-MORI poll survey suggested that six out of 10 adults would choose a private education for their children if they could afford it.
The proportion is the highest since Labour came to power in 1997 and shows a marked increase since the survey was last carried out in 2004 - up to 57 per cent from 48 per cent then.
For the first time, a majority of Labour voters who took part in the survey also opted for the private schools.
Improved discipline overtook small class sizes as the main reason behind the choice, with almost a third of parents citing it. One in 10 parents said the independent sector offered "better moral standards".
Vicky Tuck, president of the Girls' Schools Association and headteacher of Cheltenham Ladies' College, said it was wrong to assume that independent schools did not have to deal with unruly children. However, she said: "It's a perception of safety, order and discipline that has a huge influence".
The power to choose which children schools could admit or exclude also exerted a significant impact on parents' choices, she said.
The debate follow a spat earlier in the week between the ISC and teachers' union leaders.
The National Union of Teachers accused Chris Parry, the ISC chief executive, of being "snobbish" after he was reported as saying that some state schools were struggling to cope with unteachable children - although he has since said he is an unconditional supporter of state-school teachers and pupils.
Deborah Odysseas-Bailey, chair of the Independent Schools Association and head of Babington House School in Chislehurst, Kent, said parents were worried by the constant changes in state schools, while the independent sector offered greater continuity.
Earlier, Sir Richard Sykes, the rector of Imperial College London, delivered a withering attack on the ability of A-levels to differentiate between bright pupils because so many now achieved straight A grades.
He announced that Imperial would become the first university in the country to introduce a common entrance exam for its students from 2010. The only exception would be for those applying to study medicine.
"In a sense, A-levels have become almost worthless because they do not allow us to select the sort ofstudents that we need in our universities," Sir Richard said. "We are not doing this because we don't believe in A- level but we cannot use it anymore as a discriminatory factor." Work- related diplomas would "just confuse the issue even more", he said.
Improve A-levels, page 12.