Pupil numbers at Britain’s leading private schools have risen, in defiance of the credit crunch.

Student rolls are up by 0.5 per cent this autumn compared with a year ago, a survey of members of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference has found.

This included a slight rise even for boarding pupils. Analysts had predicted that boarding schools might suffer a particular decline because of their higher fees.

The numbers suggest the highest echelons of Britain’s private school world have been at worst only been lightly affected by the economic downturn.

“Parental demand for high-quality independent education remains very strong, despite the gloomy economic background,” said Andrew Grant, headmaster of St Albans School and chairman of HMC.

But despite the buoyant numbers, it is far from clear that Britain’s private schools are yet out of the woods, a year after the collapse of the investment bank Lehman Brothers aggravated a financial crisis that cost many middle-class parents their jobs.

The HMC contains 250 UK and Irish schools that form the elite minority of the private school sector. Many, such as Eton College and Harrow School, are greatly oversubscribed. Consequently, an economic downturn is likely merely to reduce the number of pupils whom they cannot take, rather than leaving them with depleted classes. Many other HMC schools that are not oversubscribed are still less likely to be hit by economic downturns than the average private school because they have strong academic reputations.

Barnaby Lenon, headmaster of Harrow, the London boarding school, said he had earlier responded to the downturn by accepting a greater number of pupils than usual in the expectation that more than usual would drop out because of the downturn. Harrow pupils are usually taken on two years ahead of entry. To Mr Lenon’s surprise fewer prospective Harrovians than usual withdrew their names this year, leaving the school with “too many pupils”. Mr Lenon took emergency action by removing a teacher from his house to accommodate them. He credited this phenomenon to an even greater awareness among parents of the value of high-quality education, because of the recession.

However, HMC schools mainly cater to children between the ages of 11 and 18. It is possible that some parents have responded to the recession, which in many cases has reduced the value of assets that they can use to pay school fees, by deciding to postpone educating their children privately until they are secondary school age.

Despite the rise in pupil numbers, HMC finances have been affected by the recession because many have responded by raising their fees by less than normal. Fees have increased by 3.4 per cent – less than the 2008 private-school average, though still above the long-term inflation rate.

The HMC survey covered 155 of its schools, educating 118,389 pupils.

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