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The Good Schools Guide's managing editor, Melanie Sanderson, unpicks media reports that the middle classes have been priced out of private education and looks at what fee inflation really means for parents now. 

Two pupils at Withington Girls' School, Manchester

6 September 2023

Another day, another newspaper article predicting extinction of the middle-class parent able to choose a private education for their children. The Daily Telegraph reported last month that ‘the best’ schools were now affordable only by the super-rich and that mere mortals – those doctors, accountants and solicitors that made up the typical private school parent cohort of yesteryear – had been ‘priced out’. 

The narrative of an expensive private education always being ‘the best’ doesn’t sit well with us. At The Good Schools Guide, we focus on helping parents find the school that best suits their child as an individual. For a small minority this might be one of the well-known boarding schools reported as charging up to £50,000 per year, for which parents will indeed need the deepest of pockets. As in all commercial sectors, the customer pays top whack for the cachet of buying a prestige brand. For others, however, ‘best’ might mean their local state primary (a short walk and local friends), a bijoux private day school (small class sizes and good pastoral care), a state-maintained sixth form college (possibly helpful on the UCAS form) or a private prep school that paves the way for entry into a state grammar. ‘Best’ means different things to every family and, although the newspapers like to accompany almost every article relating to private education with pictures of tailcoated Etonians, this represents reality for a tiny minority. 

There’s no getting away from the fact, however, that fee inflation is the unwelcome common denominator binding private school parents together. With average increases of around eight per cent across the board this year, most parents will be taking sharp intakes of breath, and many will be shelving luxuries such as expensive holidays, new cars and even the Waitrose shop for the foreseeable future to keep their child in private school. But are they really being 'priced out’?  

Firstly, it’s important to remember that whilst paying for private education for two children out of one (or even dual) income would require sacrifice for all but the top one per cent in today’s economic climate, there are many parents using other means to foot the bill. A report from Saltus Wealth Index Research published in June, included the results from a survey of 2000+ high net worth individuals and revealed that eight in ten respondents were helping their adult children out financially, 42% of whom were contributing to school fees. And with an average UK estate standing at £350,000, inherited money can also sometimes help. Families moving out of London and other major cities to a more rural location are often in the position to free up capital after selling their property, helping to cover lower fees at country schools. With the threshold for bursary provision higher than people imagine (at St Paul’s School in London, a gross household income of up £126,000 per annum and net assets up to £1.4m would make you eligible for consideration), there are ways and means of making the numbers work.

Location is another major factor. Day schools outside of London still offer relatively good value, with fees in the home counties hovering on average around £20,000 per annum and less further afield. Bristol Grammar School, for example, is £17,385 a year and The Grammar School at Leeds £16,389. This year's sixth form fees at top academic schools Manchester Grammar and nearby Withington Girls' School are £15,180 and £15,573 respectively. Even within London, fees can vary wildly – Putney High and Wimbledon High Schools (Girls' Day School Trust) both charge £23,154 for sixth formers, a far cry from St Paul’s Girls’ School which is £32,196. Big name boarding schools outside of the south-east are often up to 20 per cent cheaper than the schools generally named in the newspapers - Oundle School in Northamptonshire charges £42,270 a year for full boarding, Stonyhurst College in Lancashire is £40,905, Giggleswick in N Yorkshire is £39,915. Parents intent on boarding could also consider looking at one of the UK’s excellent state boarding schools, where tuition is free and boarding fees are typically under £15,000 per year.

Schools are caught in a perfect storm. With a combination of wage price inflation, a further increase in the Teacher Pension Scheme contribution on the horizon, the possibility of the end of energy cost capping and VAT on fees likely in the event of a Labour government, they are under intense pressure to keep fee inflation to a minimum. Our contacts in schools tell us they are working hard to streamline costs and maximise their considerable assets to create revenue streams other than fees to balance the books but, whilst even The Good Schools Guide can’t predict the future, further fee increases seem inevitable.

Our advice? You know your child better than anyone – focus on seeking the best education for them as an individual at each stage. If you have good state provision within reach, mixing and matching state and private education offers the best of both worlds – ‘state till eight’ is quite the catchphrase in certain fashionable parts of London. Shop around – you’ll be surprised at how much fees can vary depending on a school’s ‘brand’ and cachet; for girls, GDST schools represent excellent value, for example. Take financial advice from one of the many experts in saving and investing for school fees, investigate the possibility of a scholarship or bursary for your child. And finally, don’t believe everything you read in the papers.

Photo credit: Withington Girls' School, Manchester


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