PUPIL numbers at Scottish private schools have reached their lowest level for nearly thirty years.

An official census of the independent sector shows total numbers have dropped 7.5 per cent from a high of 32,065 in 2007 to a low of 29,647 in 2016.

The biggest decline has been in primary where numbers have fallen more than 10 per cent since 2007.

Read more: Call for regulation of pupil support assistants, nursery staff and college lecturers

Overall, 4.1 per cent of children in Scotland attend one of 72 independent schools in membership of the Scottish Council of Independent Schools (SCIS), which released the figures.

The impact of the economic downturn on the ability of families to afford private school fees has been a key issue of concern for the sector in recent years.

Headteachers fear job losses in well-paid industries, such as banking, has forced some parents to withdraw pupils as school fees put pressure on household budgets.

John Edward, director of SCIS, said the sector was still in good health despite pupil numbers being at their lowest level since 1988.

He said: “We’re roughly in the same place as we have been for a while which makes us around the size of the seventh biggest local authority in Scotland.

Read more: Call for regulation of pupil support assistants, nursery staff and college lecturers

“Historically, the number of schools has fallen over the last 60 years, but that’s because smaller schools have closed down.”

Mr Edward said the biggest change in the sector over the last ten years was the growth of independent special schools.

He added: “We’ve always had grant-aided schools such as Donaldson’s or the Royal Blind School, but now, increasingly, we are seeing smaller schools dedicated to complex additional support needs.”

The decline in pupil numbers comes as parents who send their children to private schools have been hit by inflation-busting fee increases.

A survey by The Herald last summer showed fees increased by an average of more than three per cent in 2016/17 - with the highest topping £26,000.

Over the past six years fees have risen by more than 23 per cent, with the average annual cost to families climbing from £11,410 in 2010/11 to its current figure of £14,127.

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

Read more: Call for regulation of pupil support assistants, nursery staff and college lecturers

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.

With Edinburgh having a high proportion of children at fee-paying schools – about 25 per cent of secondary pupils – and many parents working in the beleaguered finance sector, the city’s schools were expected to be hardest hit.

SCIS also revealed the total amount given in financial assistance to pupils rose to £49 million in 2016/17 - an increase of £2m on the previous year and double the total in 2009/10.

More than one quarter of all mainstream pupils now receive some form of assistance with 3.2 per cent of senior schools pupils getting 100 per cent fee assistance.