First drop in independent school student numbers in a decade

The ISC’s latest census notes that the decline in independent school pupils this year was slight, and came against the backdrop of the pandemic

UK independent school fees have grown at their slowest rate on record, while the number of students enrolled has fallen for the first time in a decade, in a year described by a sector leader as “possibly the most difficult for schools in the UK since the Second World War”.

Julie Robinson, chief executive officer of the Independent Schools Council (ISC), wrote the foreword for the organisation’s latest census and annual report, which provides figures on fees, pupil numbers, staff and more.

Overall, there were over 5,000 – equivalent to a drop of 1.3% – fewer children educated privately this January than the previous year, which marks the first decline since 2011. The total number of pupils (532,237) is still the third highest in the history of the ISC.

The drop in enrolments ranged from 0.8% in the south of England to 3.3% in Wales.

The number of boarders fell by 9,000 to 65,000 – equivalent to a drop of 12% – including those registered with schools and pupils being taught remotely. Boarders from overseas decreased by 17% – from 29,000 to 24,000 – with fewer enrolments from every principal recruitment market, except Hong Kong.

The report said: “There is clear evidence of the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, mostly noticeably in the significant fall in pupils from China. A downward trend is also noticeable in European countries, where the result of the UK leaving the European Union in 2020 may also be a factor. The clear exception is Hong Kong, which may be a result of a change in UK policy with respect to Hong Kong British nationals overseas.”

The ISC represents 1,377 institutions and comprises several associations in the sector, like the Girls’ Schools Association, the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference and the Independent Schools Association (ISA). Its annual report contains data collected in January 2021, at the height of the second wave of Covid-19 infections.

Lowest annual fee rise

The dip in entries coincided with widespread fee freezes, as schools hurried to adjust to stagnant wages. Fees increased on average by 1.1% year on year in 2021, compared with 4.1% in 2020. More than 800 of ISC member schools had frozen or reduced their fees. The average tuition for independent schools is now £15,191 a year for day pupils and £36,000 for boarders.

Over £1.1bn of fee assistance was provided this year – of which £938m came from ISC schools – an increase of 4.3% on last year. Over a third of pupils in ISC schools receive at least one type of fee support. The report also revealed that £455m of means-tested fee assistance was provided, up £15m from last year.

Robinson described 2020 as “possibly the most difficult for schools in the UK since the Second World War, and that needs to be remembered when reading this year’s report”.

Pupil numbers did not significantly decline, contrary to some predictions, though there was inevitably a fall in the number of boarders – Julie Robinson, ISC

She continued: “Our 2021 Census reveals a number of important facts, such as how low fee increases were as schools responded to the economic strain experienced by families and there was an increase in the number of pupils in need of bursary support.

“Pupil numbers did not significantly decline, contrary to some predictions, though there was inevitably a fall in the number of boarders. However, few schools closed permanently.

“Many independent schools received plaudits for the quality of their online provision. Unfortunately, many partnership projects had to be put on hold because of Covid restrictions, but many adapted and hundreds of ISC schools contributed to food banks and PPE supply.”

“This was an exceptional year, a year we will never forget,” added Robinson.

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