PUPIL numbers at Scottish private schools have reached their lowest level for a decade, new figures show.

An official census of the independent sector shows total numbers have dropped six per cent from a high of 32,065 in 2007 to a low of 30,238 in 2015.

The biggest decline has been in primary where numbers have fallen 10 per cent since 2007 while secondary schools have seen a drop of some two per cent.

Overall, 4.3 per cent of children in Scotland attend one of 72 independent schools in membership of the Scottish Council of Independent Schools (Scis).

Concern over the impact of the economic downturn on the ability of families to afford private school fees has been a key topic for the sector in recent years.

Many schools have kept fee increases to a minimum as parents grapple with the downturn, but the average cost has risen above the rate of inflation in recent years.

The increases mean a significant additional burden for families for whom school fees are on the margins of affordability.

A Bank of Scotland report published before the impact of the credit crunch warned some Scottish professionals could no longer afford to send children to fee-paying schools, with teachers, engineers and police officers priced out of private education.

John Edward, director of the Scis, said the sector was performing well despite the downturn in pupil numbers.

“Parents are drawn by the independent sector’s commitment to providing the best resources and the highest quality teaching regardless of the uncertain economic climate, political environment and strong performance in the state sector.

"Nothing exemplifies these better than the continuing interest of parents and pupils in the independent sector, where what matters is what works for each individual pupil.

"Thanks to the biggest widening access scheme in Scotland, more families than ever are coming to the sector for the first time, drawn by the individual opportunity that choice and diversity in education can bring."

The figures also showed that in 2015/16 Scotland’s independent schools will provide a record number of children and young people with help with levels of support rising to £47 million, up £2m on the previous year’s total and almost double the 2009 figure.

An unprecedented 644 pupils are on 100 per cent bursaries and 3.2 per cent of all senior school mainstream pupils are now on 100 per cent fee assistance.

Richard Toley, headmaster of Lathallan School, in Angus, said his school was bucking the trend with the school now at capacity in most year groups.

He said: "It is pleasing to see throughout the country that independent schools have remained buoyant.

"Better promotion from schools has meant that parents are less reticent to ask for financial assistance and are also more able to see how the best possible value for their money is achieved."

The census also showed that international pupils account for four per cent of independent school intake and boarding schools continue to attract overseas boarders with 31 per cent of boarders coming from countries such as Russia, China, Germany and Spain.