Can you afford private school?

There is a lot of talk about how the cost of private schools has risen in London over the last years, and many parents who planned to send their kids to private schools are not so sure if they can afford it anymore. School fees have risen far above inflation over the last years and are quite likely to continue to do so, in my opinion, given how oversubscribed many of them are, at least in Central London. But did you know you should almost double your estimate of what it will cost you to send your kid to private school?

Last year, I helped a close friend decide if she should send her daughter to a private school when she was allocated only her 6th choice of state primary school on National Offer Day. She is a professional on a very good income, but given the cost of rent and childcare in London, she was one of those unlucky people too high earning to ever qualify for a bursary but not comfortably able to send her children to private school either. I remember we went through all the numbers on a spreadsheet, and by the end of it, I strongly advised her not to go private. After adding up all the costs (and there are many costs people don’t initially think about, which I will talk about later), she would have had maybe £100 or £200 per month left for “negative surprises”. Our spreadsheet suggested that if she got a surprise parking ticket, visit to the dentist or lost her phone, she might have problems sleeping at night. It’s not a situation I would wish on anyone. As it happened, a few months before school start, her daughter moved up the waiting list and was offered her second choice state school. She is very happy and thriving there now, and her mother is extremely relieved she didn’t send her to a prep school in London, particularly now that she sees that even without school fees, the money that she had thought of using for school fees gets eaten up by birthday presents, school uniform, childcare, holidays and other extras.

Going through the full calculations of what private school costs with her prompted me to write about the full cost of private education here. So, what does it cost? First, there is the obvious part, the basic school fees. They vary by school, but most British prep schools in London now charge somewhere between £12,000 and £16,000, (with a few exceptions beyond £20,000, such as Garden House and Eaton Square School, as well as most international schools and the American School). Next, there is the uniform, which again varies, and many schools organise second hand uniform sales to make it easier for parents, but to be sure we don’t underestimate the cost, let’s say this will cost £500 per year (it is probably more in the first year and less in subsequent years, as you may use some items for a couple of years and buy the used). Then there are school lunches. Again the cost will vary, but a good estimate will be £300 per term or £900 per year. Then you have extracurricular activities. Of course, you don’t need to do any, but let’s assume your child might still want to do two activities on average, maybe learn and instrument and play cricket, for example. Some after-school clubs are free, many others range from £60 to £250 per term depending on the level of teaching involved – one on one violin lessons, for example, will be far more expensive than a home work club. So let’s assume we sign up for two clubs at £150 per term, again we need to add £900 per year for this. School trips might be an additional cost, and here costs will vary considerably, while some schools include this in the fees, so let’s leave this part blank for now. Are you keeping track? Let me summarise where we are:

  • Tuition fees: £15,000
  • School uniform: £ 500
  • School lunches: £ 750
  • Extracurriculars: £ 900

So we have £17,150 per year per child now, paid from your aftertax income.

 You are still feeling comfortable and think we are done? Think again. Let’s now move on to the real cost, the part that many forget about and that makes a real difference between private and state school: after-school and holiday care. State schools tend to have breakfast clubs and after-school clubs running from 8am to 6pm. They also offer holiday clubs that run from 8am to 6pm every day. Taking the example of my friend whose daughter now attends a state primary school, her after-school club costs £12 per day and the holiday club about £35 for the full day.

In comparison, private schools offer far less provision in terms of hours and at a much higher cost. If both parents work full-time, you would always need to hire someone to pick up your child from school, as even on the days the school runs after-school clubs, pick up times would be 5pm at the latest. Plus, many clubs are only offered to children from Year 1 upwards, so you would never be able to fill the week with after-school clubs till 5 when your child starts school. And who can really leave their office at 4.15pm every day to make it to school in time for pick-up? Realistically, most working parents hire a nanny from 3pm to 6 or 7pm every day at a cost of anywhere between £10 to £15 per hour. Hardly any private schools offer holiday camps, and if they do, they will only run for certain weeks and for part of the day. That means, you would need to book additional private childcare during the holidays. You could try to convince your local state school to accept your child into their holiday programme, but they would likely spend the day with children who know each other from school, which is not ideal.

Plus, and here comes the funny part, private schools have considerably longer holidays than state schools. Just speaking of my daughter’s school, they have four weeks of Christmas holidays, four weeks of Easter holidays plus eight weeks of summer holidays. And in between each of these, there is another week of half-term holidays. We are talking of at least one month of additional full childcare provision that you will have to pay (compared to state school), and four months in total of holiday care you need to pay for. I’d be surprised if that is not another £4,000 you need to add to the total cost, plus the after-school care, which at about £600 per month for the remaining eight month that your school is actually open until 3 or 3.30pm amounts to another £4,800 per year.

So if both parents work full-time, the truth is that you need to double your estimate of what it is going to cost you to send your children to private school. This is why my friend who thought she could afford about £10,000 per year on school fees found out after her daughter finished the Reception year that she had actually spent about £10,000 during the year on school related extras and childcare, even though her daughter attended a state school! So to be precise, some costs listed here might also arise when you send your child to state school, but all items from school uniform to extracurriculars and school trips as well as birthday presents tend to be cheaper at a state school than their private school equivalents. And you need to be aware that you will be spending this money; £12,000 or £15,000 per year per child is not a realistic estimate of what you need to have left after covering your normal expenses.

Of course, you can say at this rate it is cheaper for one parent not to work, saving up to £10,000 of additional childcare cost, but assuming your salary is higher than that, this is probably not an optimal long-term decision, at least from a financial perspective. I am not trying to convince anyone to opt for one way or the other, but I do want to prevent people from making long-term financial commitments that will cause them sleepless nights later on. Only go private if you still feel comfortable after considering all the associated costs and if you feel your chosen private school is considerably superior to your state school alternatives to make it worth the cost.

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14 thoughts on “Can you afford private school?”

  1. This article is very helpful.

    My husband and I (both City professionals on good salaries) had always assumed that we would be able to send our two boys (2 and 6 months) to private school to get the benefit of smaller class sizes. Factoring in all the extra costs beyond the tutition fees and the rate at which fees are rising, year on year, we think that this is sadly no longer realistic. We think we are in a position to to send them for half the time ie we could do either primary or secondary but not both. If it is a choice between the two which do you recommend? Is it better to start in private at Primary so as to get them off to a good start? Or at secondary where they likely get better coaching for university? We are currently in Islington where there are few good state schools (and we are not in their catchment areas in any event) but we have been thinking of moving to Haringey which is known for excellent state schools (and of course, private schools).


    1. this somewhat depends on your options at hand. You may have decent state primary schools but no acceptable secondary schools, or vice versa. Islington has many excellent state primary schools, but you may not be in catchment. Overall, all being equal, I would definitely save the money for secondary education, where outcomes have life-long consequences (and the peer group matters more), but you may need to make exceptions depending on your child (is he very shy? anxious? easily distracted?), and your local state primary options. Haringey would indeed be a very good choice, but it has great state secondary schools as well, so if you move you might as well move in such a way that you don’t need to go private at all.

  2. Thank you. I found this article very useful.
    We may be relocating to London in August and will have no permanent address until a couple of months later. I therefore thought that going to an independent school was actually our only option. Would you agree?

  3. I am relocating to London from Africa. Both my kids are attending private schooling at the IB international school.
    I will be based in Westminster – one of my kids may need special education considering that he has down syndrome. He’s currently being mainstreamed and though he’s in level 4 ( in line with he’s age mates) he’s operating at level 2. I need advise on whether to continue mainstreaming him but starting with level 2 or to for him to go to a special school. If its a special school are there private special schools with academic focus plus integration of services such as speech and OT?

    1. Dear Maria – you will often find that state schools can have better provision for such cases. You would need to speak to the particular special needs coordinators. There are very very very few private schools with such provision and their special needs places are usually full.

    2. Dear Maria,
      I have a similar case as yours. I have 8 year old daughter and I am finding. It tough to get in an international school.
      Did you get into a school? Would love to connect with you if you are still around

  4. I have a three year old whose birthday is due in Nov. Can you recommend a private school closest to SE28? I don’t mind the fees, I just want a top-rated school for my child. Alternatively, a really good one (private) close won’t be bad. Thanks

  5. Hi,

    This information is really useful. My husband is getting 60K per year and I am full time mum, what you suggest for my 6 years old daughter. Currently she is studying in state school and very bright student. Shall we try for her in private school on bursary. How much % bursary will get, do you have any idea?

    1. you’d really have to ask the schools, 60k is on the higher end and it will depend on your assets, if you’re renting and have zero assets you have a better chance, but if you have some savings / investments or a house with a mortgage then obviously it’s hard for you to argue that you need a bursary (you could for example rent instead of owning a house and use the equity of the house for paying the fees). I’m not saying it’s impossible but you will need to ask each individual school what they would do in your case. Also, your daughter is quite young, the earliest you would probably get a bursary is from 7+ onwards.

  6. I think it depends on your aspirations and probably central London is different in many ways. At our school many uniform items don’t have to be branded ones so that saves a bit. The school is very good at arranging regular second hand uniform sales so I bought enough clothes to last the first term including sports uniform and it set me back £48. But my friend decided to buy all new items for her child’s school in Central London and it was £900. Also you don’t need to have a nanny. Childminders are not as expensive and au pairs are even cheaper.

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