Private schools have seen the biggest drop in pupil numbers for five years, official data show, as the pandemic has led to families “tightening their purse strings”.

In 2019/20, there were 576,857 students at private schools but the most recent figures for 2020/21, published by the Department for Education (DfE), show this has decreased to 569,366.

This represents a drop of 1.3 per cent, which is more than double the drop the previous year and represents the biggest year-on-year decline since 2016.

Officials at the DfE noted that "while this follows a trend of decreases since a peak in 2016/17, it is a larger decrease than in recent years".

Melanie Sanderson, managing editor of the Good Schools Guide, said that it was “likely that parents are having to tighten their purse strings” in the wake of the pandemic.

When family finances come under strain, private school fees are often one of the first household costs to be cut back.

High income households are more likely to have increased savings

“The other thing is that there have been a few schools that have closed down,” she said. “If you are a parent contemplating one of these small private schools you might at this point be thinking ‘will they be around in five years’ time?’”

Last summer, as many as 30 private schools were preparing to close due to the coronavirus pandemic, with parents struggling to pay fees contributing to their collapse.

A year ago, the Minster School in York, a preparatory school which provides choristers for the city’s cathedral and can trace its origins back to the seventh century, announced that it would close due to a cash shortfall caused by the Covid-19 crisis.

Boris Johnson’s former prep school, Ashdown House Preparatory School in Sussex, also informed parents that it would shut down after 180 years due to the “harsh reality” of coronavirus which had prompted a sharp fall in demand for places.

Ms Sanderson said that another major contributing factor to the decline in numbers of pupils at private schools in the past year was overseas students being unable to travel to the UK.

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Families which might ordinarily have chosen to educate their children at a British private school may have stayed away due to the pandemic and opted instead for a more local school.

She added that the decline in pupil numbers at fee-paying schools would likely have only been felt in certain parts of the country.

"I suspect that in London and the South East, I think the reverse is actually true,” she said. “I know that schools within the M25, and really good schools in the home counties are not seeing a drop in their number of registrations.”

The number of students at private schools has been falling every year since 2016/17, although the year-on-year decline was by just 0.24 per cent for two years followed by a 0.6 per cent drop the year before last.

Separate figures published by DfE this week showed that the proportion of pupils gaining places at their first-choice secondary school has fallen.

Nearly a fifth of children have missed out on their top choice of secondary school, rising to more than two in five pupils in some areas of England.