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Monopoly money23 January 2024

What will private school fees look like in the coming years? If you’re hoping to educate your child privately for some or all of their education, planning for future expenditure is essential. 

What you need to know about school fees

Independent schools are expensive. Putting to one side all the optional (and not so optional) extras – music lessons, trips, uniform, sports kit etc - parents shelling out for full fees are often paying sums well above the average UK annual income. Few families choosing private schools can do so without a certain amount of belt tightening and penny counting. 

With the exception of the Covid-19-afflicted year of 20/21, the trend over recent decades has been for school fees to increase each year on average by 3 to 4 per cent - a rate that has typically been above the UK rate of inflation. That changed in the last two years as the rate of inflation finally surged above that of fee increases. In turn, 2023 saw a big jump in school fees (up an average of 6 per cent according to the Independent Schools Council) as they attempted to play catch-up, although staying, on average, just shy of the rate of inflation. And with parents seemingly still willing to pay them, the trend for constant increases is only likely to continue. The most expensive schools are in or close to London where larger salaries and property assets can help foot the bill, but the ripple effect is huge, with schools across the country targeting constant improvements to buildings, facilities and equipment.

How might the Labour Party’s tax changes affect school fees? 

Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour Party has stated that should it win the next general election in the latter half of 2024, overhauling the tax arrangements for private schools would be a priority. Currently, all private schools, as education providers, are exempt by law from charging VAT on their fees. In addition, the majority of private schools are charities and so also receive an 80 per cent discount on business rates. Labour sees this current situation as unfairly favouring the private sector and believes that changing it would be a way of raising money for the cash-strapped state education system. Depending on who’s doing the rather complex maths involved, they say this move would raise anything from £600m to £1.7b. In practice (and to cut a long story short) private schools would find themselves having to accommodate additional costs of 15 to 20 per cent resulting from their new tax bill. The big question is whether these costs will be passed on to parents in their school fees or if some of the expense can be absorbed.  

At this stage no one knows what will happen with fees or the wider effect on schools. Labour’s proposals are yet to be published in detail and once they have been, schools will need to assess and work out their options. Julie Robinson, chief executive of the Independent Schools Council has warned of significant risk to parts of the sector: ‘The policy would threaten the survival of the smallest independent schools, which operate on tight margins and without large endowments. Most independent schools have fewer than 400 pupils on roll, and these small schools, serving their local communities, would be at risk of closure.’ Our best guess is that, while fee increases and school closures are inevitable, many private schools will absorb some of the added cost by cutting staff, reducing bursaries and scaling back frills. It seems likely though that many schools will have no choice other than to pass on at least half of the new costs to parents.  

How much does private school cost? 

We’ve analysed independent day school fees to work out what parents can expect to pay for the duration of their child’s education. We’ve also factored in an estimated average 12 per cent increase for the academic year starting in 2025. This takes into account a chunk of Labour’s proposed tax changes being passed on to parents as well as the average annual increase. A family whose child starts school (in reception) in 2024 at the expensive end of the market in London will have spent a sum close to £640,000 by the time A levels are done and dusted. A school which is priced closer to the UK average will be considerably less but at £335,000 over 14 years, it’s still a major investment. No surprise that many parents choose to use both state and private sectors

Not all London day schools cost the same as Thomas’s Kensington (£26,103) or Westminster School (£37,485 – in the sixth form). Private education in the capital can be much more affordable – Blackheath High GDST Junior School charges up to £16,113, St Benedict’s in Ealing, up to £20,907. If you look further afield, you will find even lower fees – Bristol Grammar School Junior charges up to £11,853 and Kingsley Prep in Devon up to £12,396, and at secondary level, Bolton School (Boys’ and Girls’) up to £13,632, Bablake School in Coventry up to £15,150 and Our Lady’s Abingdon near Oxford up to £18,525.  

Is it worth the money? 

In September 2022 we explored the question 'Is private school still worth the money?' Demand from UK and overseas families shows that a British private school education, despite the price hikes of recent decades, remains an attractive option for families. Ralph Lucas, editor in chief of The Good Schools Guide, says that parents need to be sure of what they’re getting before signing on the dotted line. ‘For an investment of more than £300,000, parents could buy their child property or set them up in business. So, what do parents want for their money? Private schools don’t hold a monopoly on good grades and, with contextualised admissions, their superiority in guiding students to the top universities seems to be falling away. But they will continue to offer more time and resources in a nurturing setting to allow your child to develop in confidence and make the most of their talent. And for parents, the longer school day is more conducive to working life, and circumventing the state school lottery with its risk of landing in an underperforming school will always be something parents are willing to pay for.’ 

What happens next with school fees? 

Whatever happens, school fees will continue to rise. As sure as death and taxes. And although Labour still has to win an election, political winds are blowing in its favour and it has made its intentions clear. So, how will schools manage the change? Ralph Lucas would like private schools to work with parents to decide what expenditure they are prepared to cut. ‘Fees have gone up over the years because parents have wanted inessentials. Whether it’s impressive facilities or niche subjects and activities, parents should be consulted as to what they regard as important. There are some much lower cost models of independent education around, focussing on what matters and being innovative in getting there.’  

Lucas suggests that schools too, should look to each other in a bid to reduce costs. ‘A universal threat such as VAT allows for a universal response. Everyone simultaneously reducing their fees means no relative disadvantage and no risk to reputation. At its heart independent education is not about fees, it’s about education. Discipline, breadth, ambition, curriculum and ethics is what parents pay for and there are plenty of examples of schools where these can be obtained for far less than £640,000.’ 

A version of this article was first published 3 November 2021


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