Independent schools are committed to widening access to their education but parents should still start planning early for school fees.

The one thing you cannot ignore about independent education is the level of school fees. With headlines about parents paying half a million pounds for a child’s lifetime education, it is a serious topic. Most parents will have to ask themselves if they can afford that amount of money … and how. 

The financial experts agree it’s a major commitment. “Plan early. You can’t just take this year’s fees and cross your fingers,” says Hayley Robinson, a private banker based in Weatherbys Private Bank in Edinburgh. 

“Assume fees will rise in line with inflation and probably more. Even if they only rise by 2 per cent a year, the parents of a child who started school last year and boards from the age of seven can expect to pay over £500,000 for their education.

“For a day pupil it could be over £250,000. And with inflation at current rates, that feels like a very modest estimate. 

“Remember that in the past 14 years school fees have risen by more than one and a half times the rate of inflation.” 

Planning is key, Robinson emphasises. “If you are putting money aside for this, then either make generous provision for the increases or ensure that the money is invested in such a way that it has some capacity to grow. 

“Private schooling is expensive and often a family effort that needs to be carefully budgeted and planned. I know a lot of grandparents who help with fees – they see a good education as one of the best legacies they can leave a child. 

“But that also needs some careful planning to ensure the gift is made most effectively from a tax perspective. It can be an integral part of their inheritance tax planning,” she says.

Scotland’s independent schools also support pupils with fee assistance. In 2022, 24.2 per cent of students attending independent schools received some form of financial support from their school, with 3.2 per cent of senior students having their places fully funded by the school. 

The total value of this assistance – means-tested bursaries – provided by the members of the Scottish Council of Independent Schools (SCIS) is more than £55.6 million per year.

“Fee assistance has more than doubled in the in the past 12 years,” says SCIS deputy director Alison Herbert. “Every school has increased its support to families since the Charities Act in 2005 and it must be at least three times higher than before the act was in place,” 

“The Charities Act put two obligations on independent schools. One was to ensure that public benefit that accrued to the school from being a not-for-profit charity exceeded the private benefit that accrued to those who used the charity, namely the pupils and the families. 

“The other thing was if your charity charges fees – all of our schools are charities – you had to do something to ensure those fees were not disproportionately large to prevent people accessing the services of the charity, namely the school’s education,” says Herbert.

That charity test saw schools increase the means-tested bursary provision that they had.

Each school has different criteria to select which families qualify for fee assistance. And an application will require detailed information about household finances and commitments to gain an understanding of circumstances and requirements. 

A child will also have to satisfy the normal entry requirements such as an entrance assessment or exam results.

With annual fees for secondary day pupils in Scotland starting at about £13,000 (senior boarding fees are from about £33,000 a year), is the financial investment a good one? 

Herbert believes so: “Our strap-line is ‘choice, diversity and excellence’. It is ultimately all about that. It’s the choice of what curriculum you follow. Schools will do different things, giving you the breadth of subject choice so that you can find the thing that works for you.

“It is the diversity of opportunities – extracurricular music, drama, social service, public service, sport, whatever it might be – so that you get every opportunity to find something that clicks for you. 

“And yes, there’s a commitment to excellence – an expectation that pupils and families will put their all into this. And this is an opportunity – not an obligation – to seize with both hands.”

Independent schools, like the rest of us, have been dealing with rising costs and are doing what they can to mitigate the impact. “The last thing schools want to do is put themselves in a position where they are unaffordable or beyond the means of people,” adds Herbert.

“So it’s really for governing boards to manage the costs and spread the load where possible, trying to mitigate that against other savings within the school so that the impact on parents is as minimal as possible.

“It’s important that people recognise that the whole point of charitable status is that it keeps the cost of fees as low as possible; it’s not about raising money.

“Independent schools are not businesses – they are not-for-profit educational institutions, and that’s very much part of their ethos,” says Herbert