`You could open a school in a cowshed and still fill it'

7th March 2014 at 00:00
London private schools `riding high' as demand intensifies

An influx of rich foreigners to London has created such demand for private education that a school could "open in a cowshed" and still be oversubscribed, according to an expert.

The boom is believed to be fuelled in part by well-to-do immigrants looking for career opportunities in the UK's capital as eurozone countries continue to suffer from high unemployment and economic difficulties.

Increased demand is causing "tension and panic" among parents as their children compete with overseas students for places at the best private schools.

Susan Hamlyn, director of the advice service at The Good Schools Guide, said: "[Schools'] constituency is now the world. For ordinary London families, they are under huge pressure from the global market. There's this increasing sense [that] people don't think in terms of national borders any more."

As a result, a number of new private schools, catering for local and international students, have opened or are due to open in the capital.

The Mill Hill School Foundation in North London is planning to open an "international study centre" in September 2015, providing boarding and day education for students from non-English-speaking backgrounds.

Halcyon London International School opened in Marble Arch in September and Wetherby Preparatory School in Marylebone, the alma mater of princes William and Harry, is planning a new senior section for September 2015. The inner-city borough of Islington is expected to get what its operators claim is its first private senior school this September, with the launch of North Bridge House Senior Canonbury.

The new openings come after a series of high-profile private school closures around the UK in recent years, prompted by the economic downturn. London and the South East were the only UK regions to experience rises in private day-school student numbers in 2012-13, with growth in the capital standing at 1.1 per cent.

The upturn in the private sector in London has also been linked to the shortfall in state school places, which is predicted to reach 118,000 by 2016. Middle-class parents are becoming "increasingly panicked" about getting their children into the best state schools, Ms Hamlyn said.

"It would be very easy if you had the money and the premises to fill up a [new private school] pretty fast, but it is difficult at the moment to find the premises to turn into a school," she said. "The school would have to show that it's good, with excellent staff, and have the PR behind it, but it's only a slight exaggeration to say you could open a school in a cowshed and still fill it."

Figures released this week showed that London's most highly acclaimed state schools were vastly oversubscribed: the West London Free School received just over nine applications per place. And Harris City Academy Crystal Palace in South London was the most popular comprehensive, with just over 11 applicants per place.

Forty-five new state-funded, independent free schools are expected to open in the capital by September.

Ms Hamlyn said: "We have people ringing up [the advice service] when they are thinking of starting a family. It used to be when they were pregnant, before the baby was born. There is panic among parents that for state schools you have to live nearer and nearer academic senior schools to stand a chance of getting in."

She described the situation in the capital as "a microclimate", separate from the rest of the country. "London is a headcase, extreme," she added.

Rita Halbright, one of the co-founders of Halcyon London International School, said that it had students of 19 different nationalities paying fees of nearly pound;19,000 a year.

"There are lots of people coming [to London] from the continent - Italy, Spain and France - because of the economic situation over there," she said. "We have 45 pupils at the moment and we would like that to grow to 200 in the next three or four years. If we stick to just our current growth rate, that will happen."

Andrew Parmley, head of seniors at the Harrodian School in south-west London, added: "Independent schools in the capital are really riding high - we've never had so many applications before."

Open for business

New private schools in London include:

  • Radnor House, Twickenham, opened September 2011
  • Kew House School, Brentford, opened September 2013
  • Halcyon London International School, Marble Arch, opened September 2013
  • North Bridge House Senior Canonbury, opening September 2014
  • Wetherby Senior School, Marylebone, opening September 2015
  • The Mount Mill Hill International Study Centre, opening September 2015

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