Fee rises are increasingly putting private schools beyond the reach of their traditional middle class market, a leading bank claimed this week. Education Correspondent Shahid Naqvi asks whether the long-term future of independent education is secure.
Pupils who attend private schools get better results than those that don't. It's a simple statement of fact.
Last year, 95 per cent of private school pupils gained the benchmark five or more A* to Cs at GCSE compared to 62 per cent in state schools.
At A-level, a quarter of all top grades went to the 12.7 per cent of independent pupils. Of the top-performing 50 schools for A-levels in England and Wales, 31 of them were private.
There are, of course, exceptions to the rule, but accepting the general truth of this is to accept a basic social inequality in society - that money buys a better education.
Labour has long since given up any ideological pretence about wanting to bring about the end of independents, much to the anger of die-hard socialists.
Simple economics, however, might in the end do for private schools what political will has never achieved.
Fuelled by rising costs of salaries, pension contributions and increases to national insurance contributions, the expense of sending a child to independent school has risen by an average of 43 per cent since 2000.
Meanwhile, salaries over the same period have only risen by an average of 24 per cent.
According to Halifax Financial Services, these two facts are responsible for putting private schools increasingly beyond the reach of parents.
But what's the reality?
At Birmingham's King Edward's School for Boys fees have risen from #5,835 at the start of the century to #8,100 currently.
Not quite a 43 per cent rise, but near enough at 39 per cent.
But according to Dr Steven Grainger, secretary to the governors at the King Edward's Foundation which also includes the King Edward's fee-paying girls school and five grammars, it has made little difference.
"There is some fluctuation from year to year but there is no trend to it. For years we look at the numbers but it just yoyos for no apparent reason. We are currently between three and four times oversubscribed."
The experience of King Edward's two top-ranking independents serving a major city may not, however, be representative of the whole of the sector.
The schools also offer considerable amount of help to poorer families - currently 20 per cent of pupils are on bursaries or scholarships.
It's likely to be the less prestigious or not so established independents that may feel the brunt of parents opting out due to cost.
Even then, however, it may be wrong to blame any reduction in numbers exclusively on fee increases.
Cost of living has risen massively in recent years. Most notable, has been the price of property.
Six years ago the average price of a house nationally was #86,095. Today, it's just under #200,000.
In the West Midlands, house prices have risen 105 per cent in the last five years to around #170,000 currently.
On top of that, the rising cost of utility bills has been a major headline-grabbing issue in recent months.
Since June 2003 the cost of gas has gone up 64 per cent and electricity 45 per cent.
Average council tax is now almost #100 a month and today's parents face far more pressure to lavish money on their children in the form of clubs, holidays and expensive presents.
The Independent Schools Council (ISC) believes the rise in school fees, and no doubt much of the above, is countered by the fact that most families now have two wage earners.
Harvey Williams, national and regional spokesman for the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors, believes there is also a reverse side to the property price boom that also helps keep private schools in business.
"Getting on the ladder is difficult, but if you are on the ladder you can utilise the increased value of your home," he said.
"If your property was worth #300,000 in 2000 and is now worth #600,000, you have that much more equity and you can therefore remortgage to meet that increase in school fees."
Mr Williams, who sits on the board of the Coventry Schools Foundation - a collection of five independents - believes many parents are prepared to find the money to educate their children privately for other reasons.
"While the cost has gone up, the flip side is that more demand for independent education has been coming to the surface in the last ten years because of dissatisfaction with the maintained sector," he said.
League tables and greater public scrutiny of schools are probably to blame for that, helping to create a more critical eye among parents.
The fact that they are increasingly prepared to pay an average of ten per cent more for a house near a reputable state school also indicates a growing appetite to fork out for good education.
"There is no doubt that one of the things that drives people both to our grammar and independent schools is any sort of talk of chaos and misbehaviour in schools," said Dr Grainger.
"We are a relatively peaceful haven and any bother around misbehaviour is good for our business quite frankly."
But it's not just good levels of discipline that attract parents to independents.
Sarah Evans, headmistress at King Edward VI School for Girls, said: "I think parents see state schools as being much more of a political football. It has been subject to educational change of directions over the years.
"With an independent school, they know what they are getting and the rules won't suddenly change.
"Also, the state's way of controlling education has been to have a very target-driven culture and there are only a certain number of things you can judge with these targets.
"We are trying to ensure our girls become young women who can contribute meaningfully to society and follow fulfilling, creative lives.
"You can't target test that because you won't know until someone's deathbed."
The figures seem to bear out the above confidence. According to the ISC, there were 484,000 pupils attending its affiliated independent schools in 2000.
Last year the figure had risen to 505,450.
And so the private schools sector does seem to be weathering the current storm over pay increases.
But there are other forces at work that could threaten its long-term future. One of the main reasons that private schools have had to increase fees in recent years is to match rises in salaries to teachers in state schools.
Since Labour first came to power in 1997, there has been a 37 per cent increase in teachers' pay.
Measures have been introduced to improve the life of teachers in state schools, such as ten per cent guaranteed contact time and an army of classroom assistants.
According to the Government, there are now more teachers than at any time since 1980 and 36,200 more than 1997.
Funding per pupil has increased by #1,440 since 1997, there's been massive investment in ICT and the Government has embarked on the biggest schools modernisation programme since the Victorian age.
Independent schools are increasingly having to keep pace with this investment, further adding to the pressure to increase fees.
The Government is also forcing them to prove their wider "public good" in order to retain generous tax concessions.
But perhaps the biggest threat to the future of independents are the slow steps Labour has made to blur the line between the state and private sector.
It's happened in an almost stealth-like fashion. Firstly by making all schools develop a specialist focus in a business-sponsored subject.
Then by replacing failing schools with brand new business-backed city academies.
Now the focus is on encouraging all schools to adopt trust status, also backed by an outside sponsor but without the need for a rebuild.
The aim is to give schools a clearer sense of purpose, freedom and identity to help drive up standards.
To behave, in fact, like an independent school, backed by a stricter "zero tolerance" approach to discipline.
If it's a revolution, it's a revolution from within.
There are, however, two snags. Firstly, despite the greater emphasis on discipline, state schools will never be able to simply throw out troublesome pupils in the same way independents can. They will always face a more challenging range of pupils.
That, coupled with a the British middle classes' inherent need to separate themselves off from the masses, is probably enough to secure the long-term future of private schools.