Clutching their brand-new good-luck pencil cases, thousands of nervous 11-year-olds will this week be sitting entrance exams for private schools. In the past decade, more and more children have been put through this ordeal – Sats are a breeze in comparison – because their parents are determined to get the best for them. It's not just education they are buying but the wrap-around luxury of schools that offer: infinity pools, exotic field trips, and professional-standard theatres.
Despite fee increases at double the rate of inflation, the number of children in private education has grown from 464,000 in 1996 to 511,000 in 2007-8. During the boom years, with their houses worth ever-increasing fortunes, the middle classes felt they could afford to go private, even if it meant borrowing to do so. It was never a stark choice between paying the fees and a decent summer holiday.
This year is different. With house prices plummeting, groaning credit cards and the spectre of job insecurity, it isn't just the children who will be tested in these exams, but the schools themselves. Have they got their sums right? Are they now disappearing beyond the reach of the struggling middle classes? The uptake of places following these exams will be the first concrete evidence of whether there is to be a flight from private to state education.
The cost of privately educating a child from three to 18 is awesome. Fees for 2008-9 rose an average of 6.2 per cent to £11,253 and the number of schools with fees of more than £25,000 increased almost fourfold to 51. A private education now costs more than the average house.
So far, the private sector is claiming to have seen no downturn: schools report that Open Days have never been busier. Over Christmas, a couple of rural prep schools closed but Jonathan Cook, general secretary of the Independent Schools' Bursars Association says this is "normal". Last week, 25 unidentified schools were rumoured to be up for sale, causing a guessing game among anxious parents, and accusations of "panic-mongering" from David Lyscom, chief executive of the Independent Schools Council about the "supposed exodus" from the private sector.
"No school will say that numbers are down," says Sue Fieldman, regional editor of The Good Schools Guide. Figures for registrations aren't collated, so she has only anecdotal evidence to go on, but the GSG's advisory service is finding that hitherto hard-core private-only parents are certainly casting their nets more widely.
"People are asking about scholarships and bursaries and interest in grammar schools has never been higher, " she says.
Women such as "Justine", whose daughter attends a £4,130-a-term Notting Hill prep, have never worried about fees. But over the past few months she has examined every option from the local comprehensive to boarding school for her 11-year-old, and compiled the results on a spreadsheet to help her reach a decision. "People are comparing prices as never before," concedes Fieldman.
The collapse of Northern Rock in August 2007 was the first tremor that presaged the downturn. Those who read the runes correctly swelled the numbers of children taking the 11-plus for entry into the country's remaining 164 grammar schools. Such was the demand this autumn that police had to be called in to control the parking on exam day at Wallingford County High in Surrey.
But those parents were a prescient minority. We weren't yet in recession. There hadn't yet been the tens of thousands of job losses in the financial sector that have made this, so far, a predominantly white-collar recession, hitting London and the South-East hardest. Since then many parents have been looking longingly at state schools even though they have missed the boat for 2009. "We are putting on official tours every week because so many parents with children at private school are interested," says Daniel Moloney, head of George Abbot school in Guildford, a comprehensive where more than 80 per cent of pupils get five A-Cs at GCSE.
The full extent of the impact of recession on education won't be evident for a while. In the early 1990s it took three years before the market bottomed out. No one wants to take a child out of school in the middle of a year. Most would rather invest their redundancy pay-off, or flog the pictures on the wall, than disrupt a child's GCSEs or A-levels, and paying school fees in advance – at a discount – seems a canny choice when times are hard.
But, over the coming months, there will be a number of watch-points. The first will be this half-term when parents learn the results of the private schools' entrance exams. Those who were happy to pay £100 to take the exam may baulk at a £500-plus non-refundable deposit to secure a place while waiting to hear if their child has managed to land a place at a good state school.
The next indicator will come at the start of the summer term when parents who feel they have to take their children out of private schools must give a term's notice of quitting. Another nerve-wracking moment follows at the end of the summer term when private schools usually slip the bad news of next year's fees into the envelope with a child's report. If fees continue to go up as they have been, those who gritted their teeth for 2009 may be forced to make alternative plans for 2010. Come September, police all over the country could be on traffic duty as record numbers of children sit the 11-plus.
If it were easy for parents to switch to a first-class free education, there might indeed be a mass exodus. But access to schools depends on mobility in the housing market. South Farnham School, in Surrey, has such a good reputation – it provides flowers in the children's lavatories as well as a good education – that its website provides a link to a local estate agent. But if you can't sell your house, you can't move to the catchment area.
You could rent. Many parents do so around Beaconsfield in order to qualify for Buckinghamshire's grammar schools. There, a four-bedroom house varies from £1,700 to £3,000 a month, depending on whether it lies in a good catchment. "The key time is November," says Lisa Hall, of estate agents Jackson Howes, "when parents have to show they have at least an 18-month lease on a property in the area."
But even living locally isn't enough if a school is highly selective or over-subscribed and many parents thinking of "slumming it" in the state will be disappointed. "They may find that they only get places in schools that make them shudder with horror," says Fieldman. She counsels those who face this predicament to stay calm. It may be a culture shock to move your child from the kind of school where you can keep your pony to the local comp but, she says. "Children usually adapt very well. The parents find it more difficult."
State schools will be delighted with the shift, even if parents aren't. "Those who have had children in the private sector can be a great asset," says Daniel Moloney, of George Abbot in Guildford. "They are often a nuisance because they don't understand that we don't have class sizes of 15, but they are ambitious and that's good for schools."
Maybe, but state education is unlikely to be transformed by a vast influx of pushy parents. If the last recession is indicative, the shift from the private sector will be small. During the 1990s dip, private schools only saw a 2.4 per cent drop in numbers. Even if the effect is more severe this time, a few thousand children moving from private to state won't be enough to raise standards nationally – nor will their absence sink any but the most vulnerable private schools.
"Of course, there will be some effect," says Hilary Moriarty, director of the Boarding Schools Association. She expects that parents may start children boarding later – at 14 rather than 13, or even for the sixth form only. She reports increased interest in the 35 state boarding schools where costs are halved because the state pays tuition.
Parents who remain loyal to the private sector will can expect to see the fee hikes of the past decade fade into history, according to some observers. Sir Malcolm Colquhoun, who owns Northcote Lodge and Broomwood Hall, south London prep schools, announced to parents before Christmas that the £13,000 fees would be pegged for next year. "We will absorb increases in staff cost rather than sting the parents," he says.
Ralph Lucas, publisher of The Good Schools Guide, thinks many schools could make considerable savings and will be forced to do so. "There is a lot of inefficiency in the system," he says.
Others who stand to gain include schools that charge relatively low fees such as those members of the Girls Day School Trust, and the new no-frills commercial chains, such as Cognita and Gems. Pressure on places at the London day schools will fall, making it easier for the less than super-bright to get in. Tutors, too, will see a booming business and so will state sixth form colleges.
So it won't be all bad. But first, good luck to the children sitting tests this week. (By By Cassandra Jardine - 12 Jan 2009)