The official figures say that the country is out of recession, but as the economy continues to struggle, more independent schools will be forced into "painful" mergers to escape closure, a leading girls' school figure has warned.
Sheila Cooper (pictured left), the outgoing executive director of the Girls' Schools Association, said the situation was "inevitable" and likely to continue for several years, especially for schools that faced local competition and had not managed to corner a particular niche market.
Ms Cooper's comments follow a number of high-profile mergers affecting both prep and senior schools in different parts of the country. Other private schools have turned to the state sector to survive by becoming academies and free schools.
"It's going to be difficult for the whole sector," Ms Cooper said. "Any closure of any school always causes real upset. The parents have so much invested in it, it can be like a bereavement. People involved with the school will feel betrayed that their school is being closed, but it's inevitable that there will be more consolidation."
Among recent mergers, Haresfoot School and Happy Hares day nursery, in Hertfordshire, have become part of Berkhamsted School; and King Edward VII and Queen Mary School (KEQMS) in Lytham St Annes has joined forces with Arnold School in Blackpool.
Ms Cooper said pairs or groups of schools would also be more likely to pool resources and enjoy greater economies of scale. "Change can be quite painful, but it can work," she told TES.
Ms Cooper stressed that she believed the sector as a whole would remain healthy, educating the same number of children. Statistics from the latest Independent Schools Council annual census show significant falls in pupil numbers in the North but growth in London and the South East. There was an overall rise in pupil numbers in the sector of 0.1 per cent last year.
Ms Cooper's comments came only months after it was revealed by TES that many top independent schools were being forced to ease their selection criteria to fill places. Market experts said that many schools in the middle to lower tiers of the elite leagues were more likely to "take a chance" on pupils they would not have considered before the recession began.
John Richardson, head of independent schools at the ATL teaching union, said the merger of independent schools was a trend that would "certainly continue". "It is an undisputed fact that for smaller schools the tipping point when they need to merge is much lower. It's always going on in the background but the recession (makes it) more apparent."
Mr Richardson called on schools considering mergers to carry them out sooner rather than later so they could be done properly rather than as an emergency measure.
In a wide-ranging interview before she leaves her post this month, Ms Cooper also expressed concern at the lack of high-profile female role models for girls. While acknowledging the recognition of the achievements of some women in sport and business, such as heptathlete Jessica Ennis, commentator Clare Balding and businesswoman Karren Brady, she argued that the world of science was problematic.
"We need a female Brian Cox," she said. "We need a younger female scientist with a high profile, whom girls can relate to. Girls need role models who come into their school and they can see their career path and they can see a sort of route through."
Two become one
Recent independent school mergers:
- The Royal School Hampstead, London, a day and boarding school for girls aged 3 to 16, merged with North Bridge House School in September 2012.
- Kingscote School, Buckinghamshire, a school for boys aged 3 to 7, merged with Thorpe House School, for boys aged 7 to 16, in September 2012.
- King Edward VII and Queen Mary School (KEQMS) in Lytham St Annes, merged with Arnold School in Blackpool in September 2012.