Money, Money, Money…

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What will private school fees look like in a few years’ time or longer? If you’re hoping to educate your child privately for some or all their school years, you’ll want to know what lies in store and where your money is going. We asked The Good Schools Guide for their expert view.

What you need to know

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

The first thing you need to know is that fees will continue to rise. As sure as death and taxes. With the exception of the last year (when Covid prompted an average increase of only 1 per cent), average fees have risen at a rate far greater than inflation – between 3 and 3.5 per cent. And with parents willing to pay them, the trend is only likely to continue. The most expensive schools – the ones with the steepest increases – are in or within touching distance of London where the big salaries and property assets help foot the bill. The ripple effect is huge, with strong fee inflation evident across the country as schools target constant improvements to buildings, facilities and equipment.

How much are we talking?

We recently analysed independent day school fees to work out what parents can expect to pay for the duration of their child’s education. A family whose child starts school (in reception) in 2022 at the expensive end of the market in London will be looking at an eye watering bill close to £470,000 by the time that child has finished their A levels. A school which prices itself at the UK average will be considerably less, but at £270,000 it’s still a major investment. No surprise that many parents choose both sectors.

Not all London schools cost the same as Wetherby Prep (£24,285) or St Paul’s Girls’ (£26,406) and if you look further afield, you will find a private school for half the price – Littlegarth Prep School in Essex charges up to £11,721, Sheffield High School for Girls up to £13,626. 

So why pay it?

Demand from UK and overseas families shows that a British private school education, regardless of price, remains an attractive option. Greater resources and smaller classes when compared to their state school counterparts, means that children at private schools have generally fared better with work and their mental health during the pandemic. A recent survey of visitors to The GSG website revealed that 15 per cent had already or will move their child from a state to a private school. Parents want their children to experience breadth, ambition and extracurricular – all things available in the state sector of course but traditional fortes for the independent schools where the effects of educational fads and political interference are less likely to be felt.

Set in stone?

So, can anything get in the way of this inexorable growth of school fees? Ralph Lucas, editor in chief of The Good Schools Guide and member of the House of Lords, believes that political forces are unlikely to alter much: ‘Conservative support for independent education wanes slowly and steadily – there’s no way you can educate three children privately on an MP’s salary – but that won’t result in an existential threat to the sector any time soon.’

In contrast Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer, promised an end to independent schools’ charitable status as a step towards greater equality in education. This would see them treated as businesses and mean they would have to charge VAT and pay business rates. But Lord Lucas says any such move is unlikely to have the desired effect: ‘It’s just a bone to throw to the diminished left wing of his party. If Labour got into power and enacted this change, some schools would close. Those that stayed open would do so by having clientele willing to shoulder the VAT or by cutting their outgoings so that the addition of VAT did not manifest as a huge hike on termly bill. Money coming into the Treasury as a result would quickly leave to fund state school places for the now former independent school pupils. Either way, the fees are only going up.’

Some schools are taking matters into their own hands, with an expanding portion of the independent sector doing away with traditional charitable status and instead operating ‘for profit’. Their fees are not so different from the those of the old guard when comparing like for like and they are often able to make savings because, as part of school groups, they benefit from shared resources and economies of scale.

What next?

Lord Lucas would like all independent schools to work together in the event of losing charitable status in order to achieve something similar. ‘A universal threat such as VAT allows for a universal response. All schools 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 £470,000.’

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