THE number of pupils being educated in private schools has dropped to its lowest level in a quarter of a century, according to sector figures.

More than 30,000 primary and secondary students are attending Scotland's fee-paying institutions this year. The total is the lowest since 1989, and the first time this century it has dropped below 31,000.

Sources blamed the closure of two private schools this year, Hamilton School in Aberdeen and Aberdeen Waldorf, for the drop to 30,687 private school pupils, and said the overall proportion of pupils in private education, at 4.4 per cent, remained stable.

However, even if the 436 pupils who attended the closed schools had been included in the overall total, it would still have remained the lowest since 2000 by a small margin, despite a recent influx of students from overseas.

The Scottish Council Of Independent Schools, which revealed the figures in its annual survey, insisted they represented the "resilience and stability" of the sector, saying numbers had remained constant in spite of continued economic uncertainty. Experts said they did not believe the figures would cause alarm for private schools, with fee increases and foreign students offsetting a drop in domestic scholars.

The census also revealed that, despite declining rolls, private schools were on course to provide at least £45 million in financial assistance to widen access in the current academic year, an increase of £8m on last year.

John Edward, SCIS director, said: "Despite all the independent evidence to the contrary, the commitment of Scotland's independent school to facilitating access to their excellent education has been challenged once again.

"These figures show the commitment schools and families across Scotland are making in times of uncertainty. They also show the dedication of the independent sector to high numbers of teacher recruitment and retention."

According to the survey, almost a quarter of pupils attending private schools are receiving some form of assistance with fees, which are, on average, £12,500 a year and can be as high as £22,410 for day school pupils. For boarders, the most expensive schools cost parents £34,000 annually.

In September, research found that over the past five years, fees at Scotland's private schools have risen by about 20 per cent.

While total pupil numbers fell, the number of overseas pupils boarding at Scottish schools, who most commonly come from China, Hong Kong, Germany, Russia and Spain rose by a fifth, to 1,043. Although less than five per cent of pupils attend private schools, the private sector employs seven per cent of teachers; staff numbers rose by 300 compared to 2012.

Dr Alan Britton, of Glasgow University's School of Education, said a dip in domestic enrolments had been more than offset by increased overseas uptake and a rise in fees. He added: "This suggests that while a few more parents might be being priced out of the private education market, the top end of Scottish society retains considerable disposable income.

"However the private sector is facing renewed political scrutiny of its charitable status, despite the limited provision of free or discounted access for some pupils. At a time when the state sector is considering larger class sizes and raising the school starting age to six to save money, the contrast between state and private sector fortunes is especially stark."