MIDDLE-INCOME families are being “squeezed out” of a boarding school education, according to the headmaster of Eton, suggesting that those on incomes of £80,000 should be given help with fees.
Parents from professions that have traditionally sent their children to boarding school - such as senior policemen, country GPs and airline pilots - can no longer afford to pay for this type of schooling, Tony Little argued.
He said that “something imaginative” needed to be done to support these families to ensure they were not priced out.
In a speech to the Boarding Schools Association (BSA) annual conference, Mr Little also said that legislation such as the 1989 Children’s Act prompted a “sea change in attitudes and practice” in boarding schools, which were much more open and scrutinised than in the past.
The Eton headmaster told delegates the cost of running a boarding school hampered head teachers in their ability to create inclusive school communities.
“The need to develop and maintain top facilities, to offer competitive rates of pay to staff to withstand the constant waves of expensive bureaucracy have proved a lethal cocktail,” he said.
“Escalating costs have further removed whole groups of families who might otherwise see boarding education as right for their sons and daughters.”
Mr Little went on to say that average boarding school fees had risen faster than inflation and disposable income, increasing by four times more than the average increase for other goods and services between 1990 and 2013, according to one measurement.
Despite schools’ attempts to drive down costs, boarding fees had risen by one percent more than inflation over the past seven years, Mr Little said, adding that for a family with two or more children, boarding school fees “have become a very tall order”.
“Many of us are conscious that there is a risk that boarding becomes polarised, in the sense of being accessible to the very rich on full fees and the very poor on bursaries, with the middle squeezed out,” he told the BSA.
“It is important and a wonderful thing, to support children from disadvantaged backgrounds by helping them gain access to our schools.
“Many boarding schools spend a great deal of time and energy in creating significant bursary opportunities.
“The tendency is to direct this money where it is perceived to be most needed,” he said.
“Yet the more one is involved in the difficult business of allocating bursary money, the trickier it is to define need.
“It seems odd to consider offering financial support to the squeezed middle on combined salaries of say £60,000 or £80,000, maybe more.
“But unless something imaginative is done, the sons and daughters of the traditional professions who have supported boarding schools for generations will be left behind and will join those who resent or oppose the institutions that developed them.”
Mr Little also told the conference that for a variety of reasons, parents had turned away from boarding schools in the last few decades.
“From the 1960s onwards, there developed a view that sending a child to a boarding school was somehow unnatural, that it perverted family relationships and advocated responsibility for a child to people who ran shadowy, strange institutions.
“In truth, boarding schools were in part to blame.
“For all that there were exciting schools, with committed, outstanding teachers, there was also complacency, self-indulgence and a remarkable lack of accountability.”
While many adults speak warmly of their boarding school days in the 1960s and 70s, there are also “casualties”, Mr Little said, adding he had met individuals who were scarred by their experiences.
Mr Little went on to say: “The fallout of Jimmy Savile and the Yewtree inquiry has revealed shocking betrayals of trust in a variety of contexts, including boarding schools.
“In some ways more revealing has been how pervasive was the culture of the 70s and 80s that ignored threats to young people.”
He added that the introduction of new legislation that made it an obligation on heads to follow up every concern had meant that “issues that were once hidden in the half-light are now subject to the full glare of the spotlight”.
“In truth, this legislation and the change in attitude it has prompted has been a godsend to schools and especially to boarding schools,” he said.
Mr Little will step down this summer as headmaster of the world-famous Eton boys’ school, which counts David Cameron, the Duke of Cambridge and Prince Harry among its former pupils, after 13 years in the post.
He is due to become chief education officer of the GEMS Education network of schools in Europe, the US and Africa.