Average school fees rise by 8 per cent

The ISC Census shows that the average school fee rise was 8 per cent in 2023-24, but some areas saw much bigger rises

VAT on fees, parents

The average fee increase at UK independent schools this academic year was 8 per cent, the latest census of Independent Schools Council (ISC) schools has shown.

This rise – which would have been decided in spring 2023 – came as schools were grappling with the costs of changes to the Teachers’ Pension Scheme and inflation running at 8.7 per cent.

But the averages masked some higher fee rises: Boarding fees experienced some of the highest, with schools in the North East seeing a 15.3 per cent rise. Some regions of the UK saw more substantial rises in day fees, including the South West, which saw a 9.5 per cent hike.

It remains to be seen how much fees will rise in years to come, but a recent survey by The Telegraph suggested that the vast majority of schools are planning to push up fees if VAT becomes chargeable, with three quarters of those saying rises would be above 10 per cent.

The ISC pointed out that this year’s 8 per cent rise was lower than the 8.7 per cent CPI inflation rate at the time the fee decisions for this academic year were made. However, CPI has dropped over the past year and in March this year it was running at 3.2 per cent.

But ISC’s defence of the fee rises was unlikely to assuage many families. According to a Telegraph analysis in August last year, average boarding school fees now account for 56 per cent of the take-home pay of a household in the wealthiest 10 per cent of the country – up from 41 per cent in 1997.

Day fees account for 24 per cent of the disposable income of the wealthiest 10 per cent of households in Britain. That compares with 16 per cent in 1997, The Telegraph said.

Despite the fee rises, the census showed overall pupil numbers rose slightly, owing to an increase in the number of schools in the ISC membership, from 554,243 pupils in 2023 to 556,551 pupils in 2024.

However, new pupil enrolments dropped by 2.7 per cent, the biggest margin since 2011.

This drop has been partially blamed on uncertainty surrounding VAT on fees, which would come into effect if Labour came to power.

Despite this, the amount allocated in fee assistance, which includes bursaries and scholarships, has risen. This year, the total has gone up by 10.2 per cent to just over £1.4 billion.

Over a third of all ISC pupils receive some type of fee assistance, with the average means-tested bursary worth £12,909 per year, an increase of 9.3 per cent compared with last year.

The number of partnerships with state schools has also increased, with 9,248 partnerships reported in the calendar year 2023, an increase from 8,793 last year.

Some of this will have been paid for via income from an ever-growing number of foreign outposts: The census showed that ISC schools now operate 129 campuses overseas, educating over 93,257 pupils. This is an
increase from 107 campuses and over 71,500 pupils in 2023.

The census revealed a number of other interesting figures, including:
  • 111,154 pupils are identified as having SEND, equating to 1 in 5 of all pupils, an increase of 8 per cent from last year.
  • 62,708 non-British pupils attend ISC schools this year, comprising 11.3 per cent of all ISC pupils.
  • 2,055 pupils in ISC schools are from Ukraine. A total of 750 of these pupils have both parents remaining in Ukraine, and a quarter are new to ISC schools this academic year.
  • There are 26,195 non-British pupils at ISC schools whose parents live overseas, an
    increase of 2.9 per cent on 2023. Pupils from mainland China and Hong Kong comprise the
    largest groups with 5,824 and 5,075 pupils respectively.

Commenting on the release of this year’s ISC Census, Julie Robinson, CEO of the ISC, said: “Independent schools continue to work hard to make fees affordable for families choosing independent education for their children. At a time of political and economic uncertainty, the rise in bursary funds and partnership work shows that improving education for all continues to be at the heart of what our schools do.

“We would caution politicians against policies that risk undermining that work without first doing a full impact assessment, particularly looking at the effects on SEND provision, faith schools and military families.”

In his foreword to the census, chair Barnaby Lenon added: “2024 brings a watershed moment for independent education. As we look back on 50 years of ISC, we recognise various times when schools needed to be fleet of
foot to adapt to growing political and economic headwinds. This is another such time: the effects of the latest policy threat are already being felt and are reflected throughout the census.”