Are the Middle Classes Being Priced Out of Private Education?
The statistics make for some grim reading. A major study by stockbrokers Kilik & Co has recently discovered a four fold increase in school fees over the last 25 years – during which period, wages have risen by only 76%. Meanwhile, at the November Headmasters’ and Headmistress’ Conference, key players in the sector admitted that the fee rises are unlikely to slow down any time soon.
Private education used to be thought of as the preserve of well paid professionals such as doctors, lawyers and accountants. However, the proportion of average income such professionals now have to reserve for school fees is higher than it would have been for a plumber or tradesman in 1990 – clearly private education is becoming increasingly unaffordable for the stretched middle class.
What are Schools Doing to Help?
Independent schools are increasingly targeting wealthy overseas families, but many resent the implication that families in the UK are being sidelined. Schools counter that they are providing more financial help to families in Britain than ever before, with a massive £365 million going on bursaries alone.
Tristram Hunt’s recent announcement that a Labour government would consider withdrawing tax breaks for private schools which don’t meet certain community related targets is likely to add to the pressure on the independent schools sector, although some argue that such measures would be counter-productive, and would mean less money would be available from schools for bursaries and other financial support to families.
Could Government Subsidies be an Answer?
The Sutton Trust, a social mobility charity, has called upon the government to intervene and to subsidise school fees in order to allow a wider cross section of pupils to access the best education the country can provide. Such proposals are controversial, however, and have not really gained any traction.
A North-South Divide?
The situation for hard pressed parents is not equally bad across the country. A census from the Independent Schools Council found a 14% rise in pupil numbers in London since 2007, compared to a 12% drop in pupil numbers in the north of the country in the same period. As property prises rise in London and the south, parents have more available equity which can be used to help towards school fees – families in less thriving areas of the country have no such luck.
So what can be done to help families in Britain afford the spiralling fees? There are no simple answers, as Steve Spriggs, MD of consultancy William Clarence Education, knows only too well. “Britain’s independent and private schools provide a world class education,” he points out, “but that education does come at a price. Families who can no longer afford an independent school in the UK are increasingly looking at sending their children to a school elsewhere, perhaps in the US or Australia.”
Private education is now a global marketplace, and just as wealthy families from overseas may choose a British school, British families may well begin to choose overseas schools in greater numbers. However, the lure of the British school, with all that this implies, is still great. “You simply can’t beat a British education,” says Steve Spriggs. “Families may be finding it more difficult to afford, but many will still pull out all the stops to make it happen. Attendance at a British private school remains as attractive an option as it always has been.”
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