Has Private Education’s Bubble Burst?

Our Education Consultant, Sioban O'Connor, shares her thoughts on a recent article and the suggestion that the popularity of private education may be on the decline.


There has certainly been a lot of ‘Private school bashing’ in the press in recent months and we at Education Advisers were all interested to read an article in The Times this week, in which the anonymous author reflected on the recent fall in the number of children in private schools. They suggested, initially at least, that this was due in part to the embarrassment felt by the children at the privilege that has been thrust upon them by their parents and how every ‘waking hour’ is spent concealing that ‘privilege in public, and railing against’  their parents in private.

As the product of Independent Education from almost every angle myself; pupil, teacher, Head and parent, I think the most salient comment that the writer made in this context, was to acknowledge ‘it was ever thus’. In my experience, nearly all teenagers will rail against the choices their parents make for them, in some way shape or form. Since when has it ever been remotely cool to be an ‘Upper class hero’ (with the exception of-course, of the entire cast the Richard Curtis canon of films…or James Bond!)?  Generations of privately educated children have, at some stage, usually around exam time when the expectations of all are focused on getting those results that represent ‘the return on the investment’, turned to their parents and cried ‘Well I didn’t ask to be sent here….’! 

The article is very much an opinion piece, albeit an anonymous one, with a very limited sample field to draw on, other than a few ‘friends’. However, it does also touch on some pressing issues with regard to the state of private school education.  The fall in numbers is a concern of course for schools and the cost of the fees is prodigious for most parents, not just here in the UK but also worldwide (an international day school in Belgium will almost cover the fees for a UK boarding school, and don’t even ask about Swiss boarding school fees!) 

However, in our experience, the prodigious fees are still very much a sacrifice worth making - and especially in the UK where our private schools remain the best in the world.  Many families are still scrimping and saving and borrowing from the Bank of Grandma and Grandpa in order to afford a place for Sam or Samantha.  Schools too are making every effort to support families and we have seen, especially during the pandemic, the provisions schools have made to reduce fees whilst children were being educated remotely. At the same time, they still have to cover their costs – pay staff who are still working and maintain the facilities etc.  Staffing costs are usually the biggest drain on a school’s income, not surprising given the teacher/pupil ratios and in boarding schools there is the added cost of boarding staff. It is also sad to note that a number of small Independent schools have had to close in recent months.

Rather than aspiring to cultivate generations of entitled children, we know that successful private schools educate well rounded, emotionally intelligent young people; who yes, are privileged in terms of the wealth of experiences that they are offered but who, in turn, are appreciative of the opportunities that they have been given. Regular volunteering and public service plays a key role in most private schools, and many students come out wanting to give back as tomorrow’s Human-rights Lawyers, Doctors and (dare I say it…) Teachers!

The Private v. State school debate has rattled on since time in memoriam but surely we have to question why we have this two tier system in the first place?  Rather than seeing an decrease in the number of families who are looking for places in Private schools for their children, we are as busy as ever. 

For example, we have noted that some of our domestic clients, contrary to the experience of the author of The Times article, feel that they have been let down by their local state school – particularly when they compare the remote learning responses of state and private schools over the past year.  Many parents understand that state schools have been let down by a lack of investment and ever decreasing budgets,  and note that their children are overlooked in large classes, by a system where teachers are struggling with little support and a lack of resources. Parents are then prepared to make huge sacrifices to ensure that their child is given a chance to achieve the best that s/he can, whatever that looks like - from the most able children to the neuro-diverse, to those children who are just getting lost in a one-size-fits-all system. 

The pandemic has made many of our families take stock, and with so many more now working from home we have seen an increase in enquiries from families who have decided to leave London and move further out. In doing so they have released some capital, which they feel will now allow them to make that investment in private education for their children.

Even overseas families, whilst undertandably cautious last autumn, are keeing us incredibly busy. Parents take a long term view when considering their child's education. They also seem to now be considering UK boarding schools as oases of fresh air and joyful interaction with their peers - a perfect antidote to the isolated, screen-led educations that some of the world is still enduring. 

So, could the noted drop in boarders over the past year be attributed more to the disruption of a global pandemic, and less to a sudden cultural shift or burst bubble? We have certainly found that our clients with children in boarding schools before the pandemic have done everything possible to keep things going - despite the enormous challenges facing global mobility. A 12.5% drop in “new buyers” for September 2020’s enrolment is perhaps, therefore, not an enormous surprise.

Education is a key export for the UK, and our private schools, both day and boarding, remain global leaders. Ultimately, parents will always hold their children’s education as a top priority, and many see it as their privilege to make the sacrifices required to provide their children with the highest quality and best-fitting education. For us, the “burst bubble” is a pandemic-induced blip and highly unlikely to be a trend for the future. There will always be demand for quality and choice. 

And what of the Times article's 17 year old Etonian railing against his privilege, desperate to be a bit more “street”? I look forward to hearing how his resentment heals over the next couple of decades – I think he will be alright and, like most teens, will come to terms with himself and be grateful for every privilege he has, and every sacrifice his parents have made for him. 


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If any of the above resonates with you and you would like to have a chat with one of our consultants about what the options might be for you and your child, please feel free to give us a call or send an email and we would be very happy to answer your questions.