UK independents retain their allure abroad, but not at home

30th April 2010 at 01:00
Downturn in pupils from recession-hit Britain masked by 7.4 per cent boost in those from overseas

A boom in overseas pupils is propping up the recession-hit independent schools where spending on everything but their boarding houses is being cut, a census of the private sector has revealed.

Parents from countries as diverse as China, Germany and South Korea continue to be attracted by the weak pound and the prestige of many British private schools.

But this year's 7.4 per cent rise in overseas pupils is accompanied by a downturn of 0.6 per cent in overall numbers at independent schools - to 511,886.

The headline figures also mask pronounced regional falls in numbers this year. In the North, there was a 5.3 per cent drop in the number of boarders and a 2 per cent decline in day pupils.

The annual census by the Independent Schools Council (ISC), which represents 1,280 schools, says schools have also made "significant cutbacks" in spending.

The recession appears to have brought an end to the "facilities arms race" of enormous swimming pools and gleaming science labs, in favour of a "no frills" approach.

In a bid to keep fee rises low, and keep pupil bums on seats, schools have axed #163;42.6 million of spending, largely on school buildings. Only outlay on boarding facilities increased slightly.

But ISC chief executive David Lyscom said the figures showed that the independent sector had done "particularly well" within the economic context.

He said: "There were reports of doom and gloom in the media, but we were saying we had evidence that the sector was holding up. This is the final concrete proof, we think this is a positive outcome for this year."

He added that seven ISC schools had closed or merged in the last year, which was to be expected as organisations "regroup" in chastened financial times.

Fee rises of 4 per cent this year, he said, were the lowest for 16 years.

Dr Christopher Greenfield, principal of the International College, Sherborne and chairman of the Boarding Schools' Association, said independents were becoming more "export orientated" and competing well in an international marketplace.

"Boarding, with an estimated overseas earning of more than half a billion pounds each year is becoming a vital part of the UK economy," he said.

Gillian Low, president of the Girls' Schools Association, which represents the heads of leading girls' independents, added that her members had learnt "some interesting lessons" during the financial crisis, and said schools would "remain sensitive" to the economic circumstances of parents.

The recession has also been blamed for stagnation in the movement of teachers.

The numbers transferring to other professions have risen, but there was a 30 per cent drop in those who opted to migrate to independents from the state sector this year.


Overseas pupils by country

Hong Kong - 5,308

China - 3,109

Germany - 2,265

Africa - 1,376

North America - 1,006

Source: ISC 2010 survey


The Government should set a single date for changes to school regulations to save staff from needless worry, delegates to the Boarding Schools' Association heads conference will be told next week.

Christopher Greenfield, head of the International School in Sherborne, Dorset, will say boarding schools struggle to keep up with rule changes because they are answerable to so many different bodies such as Ofsted and the United Kingdom Border Agency.

Changes to regulations can currently "go live" at any point in the year.

Dr Greenfield will tell the conference: "At the moment, the system seems calculated to catch schools out."

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