Are UK private schools worth their soaring fees?

Parents earning £150,000 a year before tax could struggle to afford to send their children

Schoolboys in traditional tailcoats at Eton College boarding school in Berkshire. Getty Images
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Skyrocketing fees at Britain's world-beating private schools have raised eyebrows for many parents but, despite a loosening grip on the spires of Oxford and Cambridge, their appeal remains strong both in the UK and abroad.

What then is the best answer to the previously sacrilegious question: are UK private schools worth it?

Alice Haine, personal finance analyst at Bestinvest, has concluded that a private education in the UK is “increasingly only an option for the wealthy”.

The average fee for a private day school is now £5,218 ($6,156) a term or £15,654 a year, according to the Independent Schools Council, while for boarding schools, the average bill comes in at £12,344 per term or £37,032 per year.

Unsurprisingly, UK capital and private school mecca London is where the highest fees are found, with day pupils charged an average of £6,240 per term or £18,720 per year.

“The numbers are scarily big no matter where you plan to send your child,” Ms Haine told The National.

“Educate your child privately until the age of 18 at the current average rate and you are looking at a total bill in excess of £200,000 for a day pupil, excluding the nursery years — and that’s without factoring in fee rises.”

These bills could be even greater for pupils coming from the Gulf given some schools charge a premium for international students to attend.

This year, they rose by 3.1 per cent with schools having to deal with stratospheric energy bills and rampant inflation, meaning higher wage and pension costs for staff.

Parents will also have to factor in the ancillary costs attendant on a private education, such as uniforms, trips, clubs, sports equipment and travel to and from school.

To put the eye-watering costs into a personal finance perspective, Ms Haine believes that even someone earning £150,000 with a take-home pay of £7,442 per month “might struggle to send their child to a private school if they have not prepared their finances in advance.”

She said the commitment would require “serious fiscal discipline” and her key message to any family determined to give their children an independent education is to plan carefully and as early as possible to ensure they have a viable strategy to afford the costs involved.

Independent Schools Council data show that despite the prohibitive fees, many families are still determined.

There are now a record 544,316 pupils at 1,388 ISC member schools, a 2 per cent rise from 2020.


Oxbridge dominance attenuating

This bolstered demand comes in spite of the number of independent school alumni gaining places at Britain’s most illustrious universities waning.

Last October, 72 per cent of all undergraduate students entering the University of Cambridge had been educated at state-run schools, compared with 58.4 per cent a decade earlier.

Ferdinand Steinbeis, of English boarding school specialists von Bulow Education, told The National why these most British of institutions still exert such a global pull.

“The quality of the academic education that pupils still get at the boarding schools here is of an extremely good standard,” he said.

“Whether you're an absolute high flyer or somebody who needs a bit more help, what [they] can offer is really a much more bespoke education … so that pupils [get what they] individually need in order to succeed.”

This specificity comes from the typically small class sizes.

“I've known kids at a boarding school where there were two pupils in classes for several subjects — a two to one ratio,” said Mr Steinbeis.

“But even if there are eight to 10 [pupils in a class], the individual attention you're going to get from the teachers is much higher, and the results much better.

This assertion continued to be borne out in 2022, with 58 per cent of private school pupils achieving a grade A or A* in the recent round of A Level results, compared to 30.7 per cent of state school pupils.

It isn’t just the academic advantages bestowed on private school pupils that add to their allure.

A well-rounded education

In the 19th century, headmaster of Rugby School Thomas Arnold (1795-1842) implemented his vision of school as a place where pupils learnt to become gentlemen.

The model saw the empowerment of prefects to maintain discipline, the enshrinement of the virtues of competition and examination, and a much greater emphasis on extra-curricular activities, namely sport.

Arnold’s prescription served as template for more than just the private sector, but incontestably it is in the private sector where his ideals and principles are most keenly felt.

“Whether we're talking sports, whether we're talking creative pursuits like music or arts or design technology or drama, private schools offer phenomenal opportunities to get involved with things outside of the classroom,” said Mr Steinbeis. “A massive strength of the private schools I know is in the creative realm.”

This contrasts starkly with the state sector where GCSE subjects such as drama, music and media are at risk of disappearing, the Association of School and College Leaders has warned.

Thomas Arnold saw school as a place where gentlemen were made. Getty

Private schools have also added strings to their bow beyond the Arnold model in recent years, according to Mr Steinbeis.

Traditionally, there has been a perception that the competitiveness and lack of regulatory oversight that characterises the sector has placed scant emphasis on pupil well-being.

“[Pupil well-being] has improved massively over the last 20 to 30 years,” he said.

“Not only because there's a lot more awareness of mental health in general, but also because our schools have moved on so much. [They have] become much more caring, much more supportive.”

Global melting pot for young minds

In a globalised world, UK private schools also provide an apt environment for the early intermingling of many different nationalities.

Mr Steinbeis harked back to when he attended Sevenoaks School in Kent, where he roomed with boys from Korea, Ghana and Switzerland.

He called the experience “eye opening” and said it had “shaped him” for the rest of his life.

British independent education is still really valued worldwide, no question
Diana Morant, William Clarence Education

“It broadens your horizons, and it really makes you a lot more open minded and tolerant in a world where [these commodities] are in very short supply.”

This internationalism explains why another UK private school consultancy, William Clarence Education, has seen huge growth in overseas families relocating to the UK, with many doing so purely for the education.

“British independent education is still really valued worldwide, no question,” the firm’s Diana Morant told The National. Ms Morant said boarding was “still very popular and the top boarding schools incredibly oversubscribed.”

Instead of full boarding, though, she has witnessed a rise in what she called “flexi” boarding.

“I've got a number of families at the moment who live in London. They're looking at weekly boarding because that works for them as a family.

“For the children, it gets them out of London. It gives them all the things that we know [boarding schools offer] but they’re home at the weekend so they have a bit of family time as well.”

Why Middle East families value UK private schools

Boarding remains very popular for families from the Middle East and Ms Morant thinks one of the facets their parents most value in UK boarding schools is consistency.

“A lot of Dubai and Abu Dhabi international schools do a really good job … but there is a huge staff turnover. And I think a lot of [Gulf families] are looking for more continuity in their children's education.

To this end, many UK private schools work out roughly comparable to some international schools in the Gulf, even without boarding factored in.

“If you are already paying for a private education, then switching to a UK school that offers a full programme of extra-curricular activities might not have much of an impact on your finances,” said Ms Haine.

Of course, Britain’s private education sector isn’t monolithic. And so while there is still great demand from across the globe, it doesn’t mean every single establishment in the country has its future assured.

Ms Morant thinks location plays a big role in the surety of any institution.

“Schools that are isolated may be in a fabulous rural situation, but if they don't have transport links … it's hard for them,” she said.

Most expensive UK boarding schools — in pictures

Updated: August 28, 2022, 6:30 AM