INCREASING numbers of professionals are being priced out of providing a private school education for their children, according to new figures.
Scientists, police officers and teachers and among those who can no longer afford the fees charged by Scotland's independent schools, which are rising at twice the rate of inflation, the Bank of Scotland revealed.
Private schools admitted that more parents were having to make sacrifices to send their children there, but pointed to rising rolls in the independent sector as proof that demand was still strong.
However, the bank's report comes at a crucial time for independent schools, with campaigners claiming they are elite institutions for the wealthy and should be stripped of their charitable status.
According to the Bank of Scotland Investment Service, in 2002 the average worker in 23 occupations could afford to send their offspring to fee-paying schools. This year there are only 13 occupations which can meet the rising fees without additional help.
Fees for private schools in Scotland, according to the research, have increased by 40 per cent over the past five years compared to an 18 per cent rise in retail prices.
The average annual cost of putting a child through private school this year is 8,427, up from 6,039 in 2002.
In the past year, private school fees increased by 7 per cent, while retail prices rose 4 per cent. Among the reasons given for the rise in fees are increased staff costs, higher power bills and bigger insurance premiums.
As a result, the Bank of Scotland says the above-inflation school fee increases have priced many parents out of the market and made it more difficult for people in particular occupations to send their children to private school.
The bank's researchers deemed private education fees to be affordable only if they do not exceed 25 per cent of the gross annual salary of one parent. The figures do not take into consideration extra costs of paying fees for more than one child, nor families with a dual income.
Five years ago, scientists, police officers, tax experts, engineers, journalists, clothes designers, teachers or lecturers, writers, trading standards officers and computer programmers were among those professionals who could afford to send their children to private school. They all now need financial assistance from other sources to do so.
Martin Ellis, chief economist at Bank of Scotland, said: "Private school fees in Scotland have risen significantly more than average earnings over the past five years.
"With fees continuing to rise by more than inflation and private education proving increasingly popular, parents need to plan their finances as early as possible if they want to afford private schooling for their children."
In Scotland, there are currently 31,416 private school pupils - the highest number for eight years - which, according to the Scottish Council of Independent Schools (SCIS), is equivalent to the seventh largest local authority in the country.
Last year, the number of independent school pupils was 31,265 - the bulk of whom, 27,982, were day pupils and the remainder a dwindling number of boarders. Figures for boarding pupils are not included in the bank's latest statistics.
In Edinburgh, a particularly large proportion of youngsters are privately educated compared to the rest of Scotland - about 25 per cent of the city's schoolchildren.
Judith Sischy, director of SCIS, said: "More parents are having to make sacrifices to pay school fees out of their taxed income.
"For example, they do without a holiday or buying a new car. Education tends to come top of the list of priorities. The vast majority of parents aren't wealthy and we are very conscious of the commitment they are making for their children to get an excellent education."
She attributed rising fees to higher energy prices, increases in teachers' salaries, financial assistance to less wealthy children and investment in buildings and IT. However, she pointed out that demand for private school education is still growing, despite shrinking rolls in the state sector because of Scotland's birthrate, which was, until now, falling.
A key attraction for parents is the lower pupil-teacher ratio of 12.8 compared with 17.1 nationally, according to Scottish Executive figures.
Smaller class sizes allow teachers to give pupils more individual attention and are a key priority for the Executive which is aiming to lower the maximum class size for the first three years of primary in state schools to 18 (from a maximum of 33 for primary two and three, and 25 in primary one).
However, Eric Wilkinson, Professor of Education at Glasgow University, said "There is no evidence to show that the quality of teachers in independent schools is any higher than in state schools.
"Independent schools do give an advantage to their pupils because they tend to have more resources and classes tend to be smaller so teachers can give more individual attention, but people pay through the nose for it.
"Mainly speaking, independent schools do perform better but there are some state schools which are better. It is more about circumstances than the quality of teachers."
Labour MSP George Foulkes, who has written to every private school in the Lothians to ask how much they benefit the public, has little sympathy for fee-paying parents. He said: "I certainly won't be shedding any tears because there are perfectly good local authority schools for people to send their children to, just as I did, and we should encourage more parents to send their children to their local authority schools."
He urged the Executive to ensure that local authority schools are equal to the independent sector.
He said: "They are increasingly a match in terms of education but a lot of people, particularly in Edinburgh are more concerned about other aspects - it is a bit of snobbery in many circles."
Dundee High School last week became the first independent school to have undergone, and met, the new charity test of the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator because it proved it contributed to education and the community.
Lord Foulkes said: "Schools in Edinburgh will have much greater difficulty meeting the requirements of the regulator because they will not offer the same amount of scholarships or contribute as much to the curriculum and training of teachers as Dundee does.
"Some of the fees are around 16,000 a year and they will go up even more and that will exclude more and more people. When you tell people that Age Concern and the RSPCC are charities they say 'of course' but tell them that Loretto, Fettes and Edinburgh Academy are charities and they are astonished.
"It means people who send their children to the local state school are subsidising the private sector."
Frank Gerstenberg, former head of George Watson's College in Edinburgh said it was remarkable that pupil numbers are rising or remaining steady in independent schools while the numbers of state sector pupils is dropping.
He said: "The main reason is that people are still concerned that the state sector is not providing the education they are looking for and they are making more sacrifices to pay for it."
He pointed out state schools would have seen similar rises - and may even have seen higher rises in costs compared to the private sector. "The cost of running a school has risen appreciably over the last few years, partly because of larger-than-inflation salary rises, and partly because of government impositions such as higher national insurance and pension contributions.
"It is a matter of regret to independent schools that they cannot attract more children from a wider range of social classes, but most Scottish schools do give considerable help, and thereby do attract bright children from less privileged backgrounds."
• Additional reporting by Rosemary Gallagher.
THE clincher for choosing a private school for their son Rhys were the smaller class sizes and the wealth of extracurricular activities on offer, say John and Susanne Evans.
Despite having high-performing state schools near their home in Edinburgh's Trinity, the couple chose the Edinburgh Academy for the seven-year-old who is now about to enter primary three. Younger brother Bryn, 3, will start nursery there in September.
But for the parents, the decision to pay fees is one they are constantly reviewing and luxuries have to be prioritised.
John said: "Financially, it is a lot of outlay. It is certainly the largest single expense in our budget - it exceeds the mortgage - so we are always questioning the value for money.
"At the moment we feel we have that, and we are very happy with the education they are getting from the school, but we are always reviewing the situation."
John, who is human-resources director for Strathclyde Police, and Susanne, who worked as an investment manager before having children, would remove their sons from private education if they felt that situation change.
He added: "There is a danger that people use it as a badge but it all comes back to the question: is it value for money?"
FROM 5,700 TO 17,700 - THE COST OF EDUCATION
INDEPENDENT SECONDARY SCHOOLS AND THEIR ANNUAL FEES
Aberdeen Waldorf School: 6,969
Albyn School, Aberdeen: 8,199
Beaconhurst School, Stirling: 7,845
Belmont House, Glasgow: 7,653-8,079
Craigholme School, Glasgow: 7,860
Dollar Academy, Clackmannanshire: 8,145
Edinburgh Academy: 7,410-9,210
Edinburgh Rudolf Steiner School: 5,703-6,093
Fernhill School, Glasgow: 6,825-7,200
Fettes College, Edinburgh: 15,840
George Heriot's School, Edinburgh: 7,845
George Watson's College, Edinburgh: 8,163
Glasgow Academy: 7,470-8,100
Glenalmond College, Perth: 11,535-15,375
Gordonstoun School, Moray: 16,173-17,700
Hamilton College: 6,405
Dundee High: 8,304
Glasgow High: 7,092-8,163
Hutchesons' Grammar, Glasgow: 7,665-7,869
Kelvinside Academy, Glasgow: 8,025-8,511
Kilgraston School, Bridge of Earn: 11,685
Lomond School, Helensburgh: 7,770
Loretto School, Musselburgh: 14,595
Mary Erskine School, Edinburgh: 7,833
Merchiston Castle School, Edinburgh: 11,520-15,585
Morrison's Academy, Crieff: 7,668-8,145
Robert Gordon's College, Aberdeen: 8,025
St Aloysius' College, Glasgow: 6,993 - 7,212
St Columba's School, Renfrewshire: 7,986-8,046
St George's School, Edinburgh: 8,265-9,120
St Leonards School, St Andrews: 8,892
St Margaret's School for Girls, Aberdeen: 8,112
St Margaret's School, Edinburgh: 7,833-8,634
St Serf's School, Edinburgh: 6,006-6,264
Stewart's Melville College, Edinburgh: 7,833
Strathallan School, Perth: 9,690-14,745
Wellington School, Ayr: 8,520