Parents have been attacked for sending their children to school too soon. Diane Spencer reports. An unprecedented rise in the number of two-year-olds in private schools prompted Paddy Holmes, chairman of the 300-strong Independent Schools Association Incorporated, to criticise parents who sent their children to school still in nappies.
Speaking at the launch of the Independent Schools Information Service's annual census, she said: "We may live to reap the dividend in social terms of children separated from their parents from the age of two."
The census showed that 4,584 two-year-olds were in schools this year, a 27 per cent rise on last year. ISIS pointed out that most of the nursery provision was part-time and there was an increasing need for child care at that age.
Overall, pupil numbers in independent schools have risen for the first time since 1991. The census published this week showed a rise of almost 3,000 pupils - up 0.6 per cent on last year.
Nursery-aged pupil numbers showed the strongest growth at 7.4 per cent.
David Woodhead, director of ISIS, which represents 80 per cent of schools in the independent sector, said the rise marked a first step back to long-term growth in the independent school population after four years of decline.
And investment in buildings and equipment increased by 11 per cent to a total of Pounds 255 million, representing Pounds 551 per pupil compared with Pounds 500 last year. This is the biggest per capita expenditure so far recorded and the highest percentage rise since 1989.
"This is a sure sign of confidence among schools in a reviving market," he said. In contrast, the 24,000 state schools catering for more than 8 million pupils, received only Pounds 522 million last year.
Just over 7 per cent of pupils are now educated in independent schools. Day pupil numbers are up by 1.5 per cent, with day girls up by 2 per cent.
Sheila Cooper, general secretary of the Girls' Schools Association, representing 230 senior schools, said:"We are happy with the numbers, particularly at the lower age range."
The number of pupils boarding is still falling, however. Vivian Anthony, general secretary of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference, said: "We have no feeling of despondency over numbers. But we would like to reverse the decline in boarding places. We have to get the message across that boarding in 1996 is very different from even 10 years ago and dramatically different from the previous generation."
HMC schools' boarding numbers declined least, but the average drop of 3.5 per cent is the smallest since 1991. The number of foreign pupils has risen by 9 per cent with pupils from expatriate families rising by 2.2 per cent.
ISIS has recently embarked on a recruitment drive which reached Brazil earlier this year. But recruits from armed forces families continued to fall, by 10.6 per cent this year. Fees rose on average by 4.8 per cent with boarders paying an average termly fee of Pounds 3,571 and day pupils Pounds 1,533.
Mr Woodhead attributed the increase in pupil numbers to the country's economic recovery rather than disenchantment with state schools.
ISIS has also recorded an increase in the number of enquiries around its regional offices: up by 20 per cent in the North and more than one-third in the Midlands.
The only cloud on the horizon is the possibility of a change of government and with it the end of the assisted places scheme, which subsidises the fees of children from low-income families.
"We know that Labour is unshakeable on this," said Dick Davison, deputy director of ISIS. Labour has pledged to put the Pounds 100m it reckons to save by abolishing the scheme to reducing class sizes in primary schools. The financial argument doesn't add up. But the fact that the Prime Minister announced at last year's party conference that the scheme would be doubled has increased the ideological stakes."
David Blunkett, the Opposition's education spokesman, has, however, adopted a conciliatory tone towards the independent sector on other issues. He told ISIS that the battle lines of the pre-1983 era had long been erased.
He thought independent schools could help some pupils with special needs which could not be catered for in the maintained sector. But he wanted to see independent schools earning their charitable status by linking up with state schools.
1996 ISIS Census from ISIS, 56 Buckingham Gate, London SW1E 6AG, Pounds 7.