The headmaster of one of the country’s leading independent schools has warned of the “cold wind of reality and anxiety” blowing into the lives of parents struggling to pay school fees during the credit crunch.

John Claughton, chief master of King Edward’s School in Edgbaston, spoke of the gloomy economic picture during an address to 200 delegates at the annual conference of the Association of Marketing and Development in Independent Schools (AMDIS).

He warned that the economic downturn was already being felt in the private school sector.

Mr Claughton said: “It is inconceivable that we will not be affected in the coming months by these seismic economic changes.

“If people are losing their jobs or in fear of losing their jobs, or even aren’t sure that they are going to have their job for the next seven or 11 years, if houses and investments are worth less, then all of this must have an impact on what people do, or think they can do, with their money.”

During his keynote address at The Hinckley Island Hotel in Leicestershire, the Mr Claughton criticised independent schools for failing to speak with one voice.

“I find myself frustrated by the failure of the independent sector to convey both its unity and its diversity,” he said.

“On the one hand, we cannot find a common voice to speak for us. On the other hand, the outside world continues to treat us as if we were all one flavour, all grand and posh and privileged and isolated.”

The former Eton housemaster told his audience of school marketers that institutions such as Eton, Winchester and Harrow were not a representative sample.

“In the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference well over half the schools are day schools, well over half are co-educational, fewer than 10 are male boarding schools,” he said.

“It’s not all about tail coats and boaters and schools that cost £27,000 a year, but about the great city grammar schools of this country, from Newcastle to Leeds and Bradford and Manchester and Bolton and Wakefield and Blackburn and Loughborough and Nottingham and Bedford and Bristol and Southampton and, of course, Birmingham.”

Such schools had, he said, done much for their cities. And he added that marketing had a vital part to play.

“Few things are going to matter as much in this changed and changing world as marketing and development. We are all going to need to strive to attract pupils to come to us and accept our places. We are all going to need to keep our friends close to us and to raise funds to make our schools accessible.”

The 2008 AMDIS conference, which took place on Monday and Tuesday this week, involved discussions covering core topics in schools marketing, including strategic planning, crisis management, research skills, internal and online communications and persuasive writing.

It provided schools marketers with the opportunity to network with colleagues, hone practical skills, meet a range of exhibitors and debate the issues affecting the independent schools sector.