Private schools are closing down at an alarming rate in the UK. Thirty one of them in recent weeks, following a worsening economic crisis. This places many children's future in jeopardy, it is apprehended.
"The most vulnerable are the small, rural prep schools and single-sex schools," says Sue Fieldman of the Good Schools Guide
. "St David's has surprised me most. It's not a tiny prep school in the Hebrides but a well-established girls' school catering to all-rounders."
The reference is to St David's School in Ashford, Surrey is that announced its closure a couple of days ago, citing rising costs and the economic downturn.
Founded in 1716, St David's caters to pupils aged between two and 18 and charges boarders up to Ģ21,000 a year. It is thought to be the first school to directly blame the economic crisis for its closure.
The school has seen a gradual decline in its pupil roll from more than 400 in 2003 to 246 at present.
In a statement, it said: "The pressures of rising costs, demographic fluctuations, the credit crunch and the recession have combined to make it impossible for the school to attain viable numbers in the foreseeable future.
"Despite intense and protracted discussions with major educational charities and financial institutions, the school is unable to remain open beyond the end of the summer term 2009.'
Wendy Ransom, 42, a mother at the school, said she and her husband Murray, 45, saved for three years to send their 15-year-old daughter Grace to the school.
She said: "We're not going to find anywhere else as good as this. I feel sick at the amount of money that we have spent and it could all be blown at the last minute, it's been a massive investment.
"We aren't the sort of family that can afford it easily."
This is the first such school to fall victim to economic crunch. Others closed or merged in the last year were mostly small prep schools, Telegraph reported.
For the past 15 years, private schools have enjoyed an unprecedented bull run, with pupil numbers rising from 464,000 to 511,000. Now they are facing a triple whammy. On top of their own financial worries, and those of parents paying the fees, schools which are charitable trusts - as most are - are under pressure from the Charity Commissioners to do more to justify their status.
Many schools have over-borrowed during what David Levin, head of City of London Boys' School, calls a "facilities arms race". To attract the best pupils, they have invested millions in deluxe theatres and sports facilities, boarding houses like hotels and sophisticated cafeterias.
"To pay for all this, fees have been rising by 5 to 7 per cent a year," says Joe Nellis, an economist with the Cranfield University School of Management who is lecturing to the Association. "For the past two years, I have been telling them to slow down. This isn't the car or housing market, the independent schools sector won't crash. Parents will make sacrifices. But schools are going to have to tighten their belts."
So far, a few have said that they will freeze fees. But schools are tied to annual increases - unless they cut staff numbers and prevent teachers climbing the salary scale. In April, Cheltenham College announced it was sacking 15 staff, causing alarm among parents who fear their children's education will suffer.
Even at current levels, more and more parents are finding it hard to pay. The usual trickle of hard-luck cases pleading for bursaries has swelled over recent months. All private schools have hardship funds: tiding parents over is preferable to gappy classrooms, but their resources are not infinite.
The system is as open to abuse as MPs' expenses. Every parent knows of children whose parents have cheated to get bursaries.
Popular state schools are heavily over-subscribed. When banks were lending, cash-strapped parents could move to a smaller house in a good catchment area, but that's not possible now both the banks and the property market have stalled. Most parents who are making a hasty exit from the private sector are having to settle for less sought-after - even sink - schools. They are the only ones that still have places available for September.
What's happening now, heads say, is nothing compared to what will happen over the next two years if the recession continues. Levin, of City of London Boys, believes we are in a "phoney war" and that "2010 and 2011 will be far more difficult, especially for schools outside the M25."
At the end of the shake-out, weak schools will have closed or have been bought up. What will be left? Highly academic schools will continue to attract parents. So will those that offer something special, such as the International Baccalaureate, high-level sports or dyslexia support.
A them-and-us situation? Society is going to become even more unequal than ever. The future of the less fortunate children is a matter of serious concern in such circumstances, many warn.