Apr 21, 2024

The hidden private school fees

Emma Thompson

Are you totting up the cost of school fees? Are you turning your piggy bank upside down, white-faced? Yes, the cost of private education is the ultimate first-world problem. But even among the ‘haves’, some are luckier than others.

The global super-rich pay school fees from lavish earnings or trust funds. The rest of us, having failed to take the elementary precaution of being (or marrying) a hedge-fund manager, must save up. The financial pressures on middle-class families can be gruelling.

‘Overseas trips are crippling. Why can’t they tour to Ipswich?’ fumes a father

As a rough starting figure, a recent newspaper investment advice column told a young couple to budget for private school fees at around £30,000 a year. ‘For seven years of schooling for two children, you would need around £256,000, assuming annual inflation of 2 per cent,’ it continued.

You can find a boarding prep or day school for £10,000 a term; but Summer Fields is £37,500 annually. Westminster day pupils pay £37,485. From September, annual fees at ten schools (including Harrow, Dulwich and Cheltenham Ladies’ College) will exceed £50,000. Brighton College charges nearly £65,000.

Even with a supposed £30,000 base cost, hold your horses. Schools know that you will google and compare their headline termly fees. They bury colossal extra charges elsewhere, a bit like a Ryanair flight.

First, assess unavoidable travel and initial kit-out charges. Basic fees exclude laptops, even paper and pencils. Friends with a son starting public school just paid the ‘crazy, eye-watering’ sum of £1,300 for the uniform. And a brand-new school blazer isn’t going to last for long. Your child is guaranteed to grow like a weed, lose it, or collect as many stains as Paddington Bear.

Next, scrutinise the extracurricular activities. This potentially deadly list is an indication of parents’ general expectations and whether you really can afford this school. Examples include school trips, music (tuition, instrument hire, exam fees), photographs (school, house, choir, team), art and DT materials, hobbies (riding, ballet, sailing, fencing, archery) and socks (team, house).

Boarding prep schools may charge extra for supervision in the cricket nets after 4.30 p.m. (‘Paying twice,’ says an irritated father). Day pupils are offered ‘occasional boarding’ (£48 a night at Sandroyd prep).

Marlborough’s ‘Extras’ website page gaily reveals that ‘voluntary’ activities include trips to concerts or theatre, outdoor activities, expeditions, concerts, films and House meals.

A big problem is that these supposedly optional items feel compulsory. ‘Overseas trips are crippling. Why can’t they tour to Ipswich?’ fumes a father emotionally blackmailed into paying for a £2,400 prep school rugby trip to South Africa. Incredibly, this jaunt extended beyond the team to the entire year group. Peer pressure and parental guilt dictate that your darling with two left feet and no throwing ability cannot be left out.

Prep school bills feature disco tickets, transport fares, Legoland outings and exotic post-Common Entrance leavers’ programmes. Post-GSCEs, children depart on what are known as ‘residentials’: camping, sailing, caving, mountaineering or potholing expeditions. It all sounds like jolly good fun, but the extra charge isn’t genuinely optional. In my day, we were force-fed Greek.

Studying languages? Add a term at a Spanish school, without refunding the missed English term. Choir tour to Japan, anyone? Don’t get me started on instruments. My sons acquired a £5,000 violin, a £10,000 cello and a £2,000 French horn, plus endless sheet music, music exam fees, choir CDs and holiday courses.

A friend’s sports scholar son had 5 per cent off fees which were easily outweighed by other costs. He needed protectors for most body parts – shin pads, thigh pads, jockstraps, mouthguards – and umpteen bats and balls. ‘Anyone would think they were playing for England,’ complains his mother.

Another hidden cost which can add a high mark-up to parental calculations, but seems impossible to say no to if your child cannot cope, is ‘learning support’. Marlborough offers ‘English as a language’ (presumably for foreign pupils or children with un-even abilities) and learning support lessons, chargeable at £75 per hour. This implies that schools are taking pupils they are not set up to cater for – why? Could it possibly be because they want to fill their places and the child has siblings?

Schools springing changes are another source of parental exasperation. ‘They changed the sports kit when I had just been given a lovely big bag of hand-me-downs,’ moans one Eton mother.

There are other ways parents can be caught out. ‘Sundries’ at Marlborough include subscriptions for academic publications, travel vaccinations and medication. Children may blithely treat things as free that are signed for by them and billed to parents. ‘Interrogating our son about his Stowe bill,’ recalls one father, ‘we discovered he had taken out a subscription to Country Life.’

School bills can contain still nastier surprises. One friend was charged for ‘replacing a wall’. It transpired that in her son’s haste to tell his friend to hurry up in the shower, he had inadvertently banged so hard on a stud wall that it collapsed.

Pricing out the middle classes is changing the dynamic of private education. Some schools are competing in a ‘race to the top’ to offer the most luxurious amenities, with the annoying assumption that all the parents can afford them. I don’t mean that children should still be expected to endure cold showers, or to emerge from Colditz, as my friend’s prisoner-of-war uncle did, bravely joking > it was a doddle if you had been to a boarding school. However, there is something a little galling about paying for an allegedly educational trip for your children which wouldn’t look out of place advertised as a holiday with Abercrombie & Kent.

Does the prospect of growing up become less enticing when you are accustomed to unearned luxury at a tender age? My eldest son’s bon-vivant godmother expressed astonishment when we funded a credit to the school bar enabling him, aged 16, to buy beer and bacon sandwiches from 4 p.m. ‘I have lived in several countries,’ she spluttered, ‘but never anywhere which saw 4 p.m. as a usual time to start drinking.’

Some parents are beginning to challenge off-the-scale levels of luxury which they feel they are being strong-armed into. ‘The children should be less removed from reality,’ says one mother. ‘But schools have us over a barrel, because they have our children. My daughter beseeched me not to ring the headmaster in a rage, in case it ruined her chances of becoming head girl.’

We squeezed middle-class parents delude ourselves with paper-thin justifications for putting up with the mounting costs. Having a child is expensive anyway, we say. I once joked that school fees seem better value in the holidays, when growing teenagers can empty the fridge on a four-hourly loop. Admittedly this is a hard line of argument to maintain – we were not filling the fridge to the cost of £30,000 to £65,000 a year per child.

If schools cater only to oligarchs or those on full bursaries, forcing those in between into racking up bottomless extras, struggling parents may look for escape via a no-frills education. Is the answer not to let your darling get into any sports teams, acquire any hobbies, have any additional learning needs or, indeed, bang on any walls? The reality, however, is that you are super-lucky if you can contemplate private school, with its countless opportunities, at all. The contrast with state provision is dreadfully stark. Many state schools are in such dire financial straits that trips or music lessons just don’t exist. Teachers observe that many state school parents can’t afford £30 for an end-of-year event, or even to feed themselves. The list of extras for private schools would make them cry.

The older I get, the more I conclude that everything in life is about striking a balance. I would not be in favour of dismantling good provision, such as private education, since it generally leaves a void in its place. It would seem to me better to curtail the excess extravagance, rather than further endorsing vulnerable young people’s feelings of extreme privilege. Could we not try to nudge the dial back, feeling our way towards ‘good capitalism’?

It would surely be more rewarding to send a deprived child on a potentially life-changing school trip than to spoil your own offspring in an unwinnable attempt to keep up with the billionaires. Keep a lid on those extras to preserve perspective.

Emma Thompson

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