Across the land, nothing gets parents more anxious than schools. Education costs can run into hundreds of thousands of pounds if you choose to go private, or you could face hiked mortgage payments if you move into an area with good state schools and inflated house prices to match.

At current rates, a family with two children at private day schools can expect to be paying £2,556 a term for each child – a total of £15,336 a year.

Sending little Freddie and Mia to a prep school that has boarders as well as day pupils works out even more expensive, because boarding schools have longer school days and more facilities to maintain. Average day fees at mixed boarding and day schools are £3,305 a term. So that’s £19,830 per year for the two nippers.

Fees in private schools have risen by more than 40 per cent in cash terms since 1999. Although fees rose by a more modest 5.8 per cent on average in the year to January 2005, the increase the previous year was up to 13.5 per cent in some schools.

It’s the unpredictability of these rises that hits parents hardest, especially when they are paying for schools out of earned income. Peter Jennings, director of schools advisory services at leading education consultancy Gabbitas, says: “I don’t think there can be an ever-upward rise in fees – they are running at about a 6 per cent rise a year on average. But fewer schools are now doing appeals to keep up their facilities so it all has to come out of capital.”

There are also plenty of hidden costs associated with private schools, such as uniform from specialist suppliers. Figures from John Lewis, supplier to many private schools, show average costs of around £200 for a winter uniform for junior age children at private schools. The costs increase if school uniform includes non-standard shirts, trousers and blazers. A standard pair of John Lewis trousers costs £4, while non-standard pairs are £16 each.

And then there are the music lessons and instruments, sports, birthday parties and gifts for other children’s parties, and school trips. A survey for Sainsbury’s Bank last year found these “extras” can cost £3,000 a year per child.

Gill Cardy is a certified financial planner at Professional Partnerships in London, and says it’s these hidden costs that can be an unpleasant surprise for her clients.

“Most people have no idea about the added costs of private schools. These children do tend to get involved in a lot of things, and they tend not just to go on a field trip to the Brecon Beacons – private schools go on school trips with attitude.”

Given these huge cost burdens, it doesn’t seem surprising that there’s been a slight dip in the numbers of privately-educated children in the UK.

The Independent Schools Council (ISC), the trade body representing some 80 per cent of private schools, said earlier this month that there’s been an overall 0.6 per cent drop in the numbers of children educated privately. In January 2005 there were 501,580 children in independent schools, against 504,830 at the same time last year.

The ISC says this drop can be accounted for by a fall in the birthrate and fewer overseas boarders.

Even so, Penny Bysshe, who runs education consultancy School Guidance, says she now advises many families who are happy to mix state and private provision. And while parents who opt to go private may struggle with the costs, in the state sector there’s the unpredictability of the school admissions systems to navigate. Government plans to increase parental choice – and parents’ expectations – are painfully at odds with the reality of state schools, which is that the school chooses you, rather than the other way around.

Bysshe says: “Parents think they have a right to a choice but in fact the word ‘choice’ has not been used at all. It’s a preference.” A growing part of Bysshe’s workload is preparing appeals against schools’ refusal to award a place at age 11. “I have people who have no place for their child.”

But getting a sought-after place in a state secondary school may not be the end of the story.

Jennings at Gabbitas says: “We are getting a great majority of inquiries at the moment from parents at secondary level. Either they want to move to a private school after primary education or perhaps their child has done a year at the local secondary school, or is moving for GCSEs or the sixth form.”

He says that children who have thrived in excellent local primaries sometimes fail when they move to huge comprehensives, so parents become prepared to pay for a smaller school. That’s a massive financial blow for families who have not expected to have to pay for private education. Assuming current day school fee levels, and rises of 5.8 per cent a year, a child starting secondary school this year will cost an average of £82,426 to put through private school from 11-18.

Many people decide to move in search of good state schools. But successful schools shift property prices upwards. In Wandsworth, south London, there are good primary and secondary schools, and there’s even a street where homes on one side are in the catchment area for the very popular Allfarthing primary school, while houses on the other side are currently not in the area. Robin Chatwin, director of Savills estate agency, runs the Wandsworth branch and says: “A house that costs £500,000 on one side of the street might only be £475,000 on the other side not in the catchment area.”

Still, a £25,000 extra outlay on your mortgage is considerably less than the amount you’d pay to put children through private school for the primary years. In this area of south-west London there are also a large number of prep schools, and proximity to private schools is also sought after, pushing up the competition for houses even further.

But be warned that catchment areas can vary widely from year to year. A house you thought was safely inside the catchment may drop out if a small school has an unusually high number of siblings taking up most of the available places. As an example, in the London borough of Camden, one very successful primary, Eleanor Palmer, had 103 applications for 30 places last year – and 12 of these were automatically allocated to siblings. The limit of the catchment area was just 168 yards from the school front gates. The head teacher, Kate Frood, says the catchment area is likely to shrink to 100 yards for next year’s school intake.

If you want to check your chances of getting into popular state schools, a useful measure under the new freedom of information rules is that local authorities now publish data on the number of applications for each school, and the greatest distance from which applications were successful.

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