The cost of a private education increased at its slowest rate on record this year, but independent schools that backed a sensitive response to pandemic pressures are hoping to attract more pupils to their classrooms in September.

Fees at UK private schools increased on average by 1.1 per cent year on year in 2021, compared with 4.1 per cent in 2020, according to the Independent School Council’s annual census, which was conducted in January. The average fee for independent schools is now £15,191 a year for day pupils and £36,000 for boarders.

The increase maintained the long trend of above-inflation fee rises at UK private schools, with the consumer prices index running at 0.7 per cent in the 12 months to January.

The growth in fees was far more modest than during the past two decades, when schools recorded annual fee rises of about 4 per cent or more. But experts said it is likely to be followed by bigger rises in both student numbers and fees next year, as parents anxious about educational loss in the pandemic and flush with savings accrued in lockdown consider private school options.

“There’s certainly been a temporary pause,” said Jason Hollands, managing director at wealth management group Tilney Smith & Williamson. “The question is, is this a temporary blip, and I think it probably will be . . . Next year, the demand will increase and we’ll see fees rise at a higher rate.”

When the pandemic struck last year, private schools feared falling household incomes, bans on international travel and school closures that made it difficult to justify costly fees would mean many pupils dropping out or demanding refunds.

As a result, most schools froze fees, reined in rises or offered increased support to parents. Provision of means-tested fee assistance increased 3.4 per cent to £455m, according to the ISC.

Chart showing that school fees increases outpace inflation, annual percentage change, 2000-21. School fees against UK consumer prices

But more than a year on, enrolment at the 1,337 ISC schools that completed the census has largely held up. Pupil numbers declined only 1.3 per cent from a previous record high, to 532,237, but the total is still the third highest since ISC was founded in 1974.

Barnaby Lenon, ISC chair, said the success of private schools in moving to online learning meant the vast majority of families kept their children on the school roll, despite some suffering falls in income. As parents worry about learning loss during lockdown, he expects ISC schools are likely to see increases in recruitment next year too.

“They managed to stick with us in this most difficult of times,” he said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if this continues. Many schools are reporting a big increase in applicants for September 2021.”

Hollands said a pandemic boost to household savings will also increase demand, but warned that only families with investment or property income, and often with the help of grandparents, would be likely to afford fees.

“It’s very difficult to do private school fees just out of income,” he said. “The pandemic in the last year has widened the wealth gap . . . [It has] accentuated and exacerbated the inequalities between those who own assets and those who don’t.”