Middle classes abandon state schools
By Graeme Paton and Toby Helm
A growing proportion of middle-class parents are giving up on state education after 10 years of Labour rule by paying to educate their children in the independent sector, official figures have disclosed.
The scale of the exodus is shown for the first time in statistics indicating that many families outside the traditional fee-paying heartland of the South East are shunning comprehensives in favour of private schools.
In almost a third of towns and cities - including Manchester, Nottingham, Bristol, Newcastle, Reading, Blackburn and Brighton, which have some of the most deprived neighbourhoods - more than one child in 10 attends a private school.
In parts of inner London the figures are even more stark, fuelling fears of an emerging educational "apartheid" in the biggest cities.
The split comes despite Tony Blair's repeated pledge to improve state schools so much that parents no longer felt pressure to go private.
Last night, Labour MPs reacted with dismay to the figures, saying their own government had failed to reform the state system sufficiently.
The official statistics show England's independent primary and secondary schools now teach more than 430,000 children - and the proportion in the independent sector has grown in the past three years.
Figures from the Department for Children, Schools and Families showed that on average, 7.1 per cent of 11- to 15-year-olds were taught in independent schools in 2004. But by this year the proportion had risen to 7.3 per cent - a total of 232,620 pupils.
There was also a rise in the number of primary-school age children in private education over the three-year period, from 5.5 per cent to 5.6 per cent - a total of 199,030 pupils.
The increases are despite an estimated 40 per cent rise in private school fees over the past five years, which analysts feared was pricing many middle-classes parents out of the independent sector. Head teachers said many families were making sacrifices to send children to fee-paying schools because it was hard to get them into good state schools.
Others said families were fleeing the culture of testing and Whitehall targets.
Paul Farrelly, the Labour MP for Newcastle-under-Lyme, who was educated at a comprehensive before going to Oxford, said: "For anyone who believes in universal state education these figures have got to be a worry.
"The Government needs to look deeper into them to understand what is going on and why.
"It is not good enough to say people are becoming better off and exercising their choice because they are leaving the state sector behind."
John Trickett, the Labour MP for Hemsworth, said Mr Blair had "failed in his objective".
"What we need to do now is set firm targets to achieve the equivalent funding for private and state schools."
Last year, Gordon Brown, as Chancellor, said his "long-term aim" was to ensure that all children received the same funding as pupils in private schools. Despite this the difference is unchanged - with about £3,000 a year more spent on privately educated children than those in the state system.
The Conservatives insisted that the education gap between working class and affluent families was widening.
Michael Gove, the shadow children's secretary, said: "In significant parts of the country there are not enough good school places. This reinforces one of our main concerns: the attainment gap between children from wealthy backgrounds and the poorest." Figures show that 41 local education authorities lost more than a tenth of secondary pupils to the independent sector - more than the national average - compared to 37 in 2004.
Cities with some of the highest levels of child poverty had large numbers of privately-schooled pupils, fuelling fears of social segregation.
In Manchester, 40 per cent are eligible for free meals - the Government's main indicator of deprivation - yet one in 10 goes private. In Newcastle, almost 30 per cent are "deprived" yet 14 per cent are privately-educated - twice the national average. A quarter of Nottingham pupils are on free meals yet a tenth go private.
The finding was most striking in inner London. In Kensington and Chelsea, 45 per cent of children are educated in independent schools, yet the borough has the seventh-highest rate in the country for children on free meals.
Because of falling birth rates, there are now fewer five- to 16-year-olds in the education system. This means that although the independent sector has increased its share, raw numbers have fallen - down 5,000.
The DCSF said almost 93 per cent of children in England attended state schools.
"The overwhelming majority of parents are clearly satisfied with the state education system," said a Government spokesman. "New research from Keele University shows that nine out of 10 are happy with their children's schools.
"The state school system is continuing to deliver for parents, regardless of their wealth or background, with record results across the board."
Mick Brookes, of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: "We have to consider what parents are buying when they opt for the independent sector.
"They are buying smaller class sizes and quite often enhanced resources. Some parents are buying the fact that their children are not going to be quite as pressured by the tables, targets and tests regime in the state sector.
"I've spoken to parents who say, 'I don't want my child to grow up like this, I want my child to grow up enjoying education.' That is becoming more difficult in state schools."