Independent schools in the North of England and Wales are struggling to attract new pupils while schools in the South East are booming, new figures reveal, highlighting an ever-deepening geographical divide in private education.
Data released today shows that while private school student numbers overall are at their highest since comparable records began in 1974, the total number of children attending schools outside of the South East is dwindling.
According to data contained within the Independent Schools Council’s (ISC) annual census, the private sector has “weathered the economic storm” and bounced back to “pre-recession levels” in 2008.
But just three regions, London, East Anglia and the South East, have seen an increase in pupil numbers, whereas the South West, the East and West Midlands, the North and both Wales and Scotland have all witnessed falls.
Over the past year, the North experienced one of the biggest drops in pupil numbers of 0.9 per cent, following a modest 0.1 per cent rise in 2015.
The figures are set against a backdrop of private school closures, such as that of Sunderland High School, and independent schools joining the state sector by becoming academies and free schools.
Of the private schools that have converted to the state sector, the vast majority are based in the North, such as Liverpool College on Merseyside, Batley Grammar and Bradford Girls’ Grammar School in Yorkshire and Kings Priory School on Tyneside.
The census of the more than 1,200 independent schools represented by the ISC also highlights the changing profile of overseas students at UK private schools – with the number of Chinese pupils rising 43 per cent since 2014.
In contrast, the number of pupils attending UK independent schools from Russia has fallen for the first year since 2011.
Overall, the proportion of overseas students in ISC schools has remained at 5.3 per cent from 2015 to 2016. This figure has been relatively steady since 1982, when 4.4 per cent of the student population came from abroad.
Students who were previously educated in state schools make up 26 per cent of ISC pupils, contradicting the idea that parents who send their children to private school would never have considered doing otherwise.
Chris Ramsey, headmaster of the King’s School, Chester, a co-educational day school, said times remained tough for private schools in his area.
‘Highly competitive market’
“Without doubt, the independent school market in the North West remains highly competitive, demand is static and we are seeing increased mobility of parents,” Mr Ramsey said. “As with most businesses, I don’t think any of us are enjoying the post-recession increase in demand that we had initially hoped for.”
Bernard Trafford, headmaster of the Royal Grammar School, Newcastle upon Tyne, a co-educational day school, said that “recovery is patchy across the North”.
“In Newcastle we’re seeing powerful (and increased) demand for independent school places at all age groups and across all our schools: however, we do know that other areas in the region are less fortunate,” he said.
The publication of the ISC data comes after TES reported that Barnaby Lenon, the organisation’s chair, advised private schools to capitalise on the financial difficulties of their state school rivals by cutting fees so they would attract more parents.
Referring to today’s census, Mr Lenon said that the regional differences in pupil numbers “simply reflected the regional economies”, and that schools in the North had “reacted well” to the tougher economic times.
Independents lead ‘character education’
More than half of private schools are now providing their students with “formal” character education classes, according to the ISC census.
In total, 717 ISC schools offered pupils a character programme of some description in 2016, as they aimed to give them a more rounded education rather than just focusing on academic subjects.
The number of private schools offering such courses shows how the independent sector is leading the way in terms of trying to teach students to develop “resilience” and “grit”.
It also reflects the wider push within both the state and independent sectors to offer “character education” to students. Education secretary Nicky Morgan has made character development and improving children’s mental health one of her chief priorities, and has even created an award scheme to encourage character-building activities.