'If you have to ask how much, you probably can’t afford it.' Rewind a few decades and that was the general position on private school fees. Even The Good Schools Guide didn’t publish them in early editions.
But times have changed and – largely in recognition of so many families making considerable sacrifices to privately educate their children – independent schools (and we) are far more transparent.
But with annual school fees ranging from £3,900 (The Independent Grammar School: Durham) to £64,920 (boarding fees for overseas pupils at Brighton College), how can you tell how much you need to spend to get what you want?
To work that out, you’ll need to know what your money will buy – and what it won’t.
Geography and school fees
A lot comes down to the location (and demand in that area). A good private school in, say, Northern Ireland or the north of England could (with some, mostly famous, exceptions) cost half of what you’d pay for the leading private schools in London and the home counties. Annual fees for The Manchester Grammar School, a leading academic boys school, are £15,180, comparing favourably with London’s St Paul’s School which charges £29,685.
We are increasingly seeing families moving away from London and the home counties specifically to get more bang for their buck. ‘There was no way we could look at private schools unless we sold our house, but selling up in the South East enabled us to put away fees for both our children’s entire education and still get a bigger house!’ one parent told us.
Your child’s age
Private school fees will increase (often dramatically) during your child’s education. So while year 1 fees may appear do-able even after your hefty mortgage payments, fast forward to the GCSE years and the picture may look starker.
Not only do private school fees persistently rise beyond inflation (they have increased more than 20 per cent above inflation since 2009/10) but your child’s age will have an impact. Take Queen Ethelburga’s College in York where you’ll start off paying £12,300 a year for a day pupil's place in Reception but at the top of the school you’ll be forking out £20,850 (that’s in today’s money – in reality you will need to factor in a 3%-5% increase for every year that passes). If you're looking to board, that fee range is £33,450 - £37,800 (more if they’re international boarders).
A private school’s facilities and setting
‘We’ve seen some serious school buildings in our time, but this takes the biscuit,’ our review says of Stowe School, Buckinghamshire. UWC Atlantic is based in a castle and Lancing College, West Sussex boasts an architectural stunner of a school chapel.
As for facilities, we have visited independent schools with university-style lecture theatres offering 3D imagery, science labs that would turn research centres green with envy, Olympic standard sports halls and theatres that wouldn’t look out of place in the West-End.
All this comes at a cost, of course (boarding at the three schools named above costs more than £40,000 per annum). Old and exceptional grounds and buildings cost a lot to maintain. These bells and whistles won’t necessarily buy you a better education, as our reviews reveal, but they can inspire, broaden horizons, offer more opportunities and are often accompanied by eg professional sports coaches, PhD science staff and working actors.
The schools with the best grades
Do private schools guarantee success? While academic track record has a bearing on fees (being near the top of the league tables creates more demand and increased prices, as St Paul’s Girls School illustrates with its £29,946 - £32,196 fees), it’s important to remember there are no guarantees regardless of how high the fees are.
And while once upon a time the most famous UK private schools were worth investing in purely because of the name, that’s no longer necessarily the case.
Our reviews and consultancies show that finding the right private school for the right child is a much safer bet for getting them to reach their potential than assuming that the most famous schools and highest fees inevitably lead to top grades. Also, note that in some schools, exam results can ebb and flow – just take a look at the ‘latest results’ section of our reviews for evidence.
Does paying for private school help you get into Oxbridge?
A decade ago, the top-whack fees of Eton, St Paul’s, Harrow etc bought your offspring a good chance of getting into Oxford and Cambridge, as well as being fast-tracked into a top job via the ‘old school tie network’. But a growing focus by top universities to ensure equality, and by employers on diversity – coupled with an improving state school sector and growth in international students - means that’s no longer the case.
Oxbridge admissions are now more interested in students who have genuine passion for their subject, a natural intellect and have overcome barriers in achieving top grades rather than over-prepared independent school students. So if the school you have your eye on still trades on its Oxbridge admission rate to justify its eye-watering fees, don’t believe the hype.
What else are your school fees paying for?
Many parents choose private schools, at least in part, for the holistic, all-rounded experience. The independence of private schools permits them to move away from the national curriculum and channel resources to non-academic pursuits – the sport, drama, music and art, the clubs and societies, the visiting speakers and the trips. And generally speaking this is an area where the greater the quantity, quality (and, as mentioned, the facilities), the more you pay.
Be warned some cost extra – it can be quite a shock to see certain clubs and a US football sports tour added to your bill. And that’s already on top of potentially expensive uniform, exams (yes, really), sports equipment, food (which, in some schools, is restaurant standard and comes with a similar price-tag) and one-to-one learning support when you find out your child is, for example, dyslexic.
Pastoral care is the number one priority for many parents. These parents want their money to go on a nurturing environment that puts the spotlight on wellbeing, that works hard on prevention (eg of anxiety, eating disorders, self-harm) and nips thorny issues in the bud.
Good news is that some of the cheaper independent schools we’ve visited have exceptional pastoral care (eg Heathfield Knoll, Worcestershire where fees start at £10,113). Bad news is pastoral isn’t a given even in the most expensive schools.
Supply and demand
As families increasingly feel the pinch with the rising cost of living, schools in less densely populated areas are having to look at their fees. In 2022 we visited Abberley Hall in Worcestershire, which had significantly reduced its day fees. While the last head was all about full boarding (you couldn’t even be a prefect, let alone a head girl or boy unless you lived at school), the current one is attempting (successfully) to pull in the local day market with more affordable fees. Proof again that the old adage, ‘you get what you pay for’ simply isn’t true. In this case, quite the opposite.
Reducing the cost of school fees
Don’t assume independent school fees are set in stone. There are many ways you can reduce them including means-tested bursaries, scholarships based on merit, grants (eg from Education Trusts, LAs and philanthropists), sibling discounts, reductions for certain professions, employer support, paying up front and contributions from grandparents.
Or you could mix and match when it comes to state and independent education.
Fees information in this article was updated in September 2023 to reflect the fees charged for the 23/24 academic year.
Photo credit: Lancing College, West Sussex
Want help from The Good Schools Guide in finding a scholarship or bursary for your child?
The Good Schools Guide Education Consultants holds a unique central database of information on the scholarships and bursaries offered by UK independent schools. If you have a gifted child but limited finances, a confidential discussion with our experts before speaking to individual schools may help determine your next step.