School fees are a sobering subject. A case of vintage Armagnac cost around 7 guineas in the 1890s, as did a term at public school. But in 2007, you should expect to pay around £360 for 12 bottles of quality brandy and more than £8,000 for a term’s fees. Pri-vate education is the largest investment undertaken by the middle classes, once they have bought a house. It can cost as much as £200 to put your embryo down for your old school, and by the time you’ve paid the fees and extras through prep school and public school, you’ll have spent up to £250,000.

Secondary-school fees are rising well above inflation 5.5% last year. Since 2000, fees have risen by 40% Eton College costs £26,490 and that’s not including ‘extras’ such as art trips, rugby tours and judo lessons. ‘It shocks me to hear how much fees have gone up since I sent my children to school,’ said a mother, whose children were at public school in the 1990s. ‘But I think it’s worth it. You make better friends, you learn about comradeship and supporting the people around you.’ It hasn’t always been such a burden to send your child away to school. ‘Appar-ently, in the 1940s, the cost of a Rolls-Royce and a mistress in Maida Vale was the same as an Eton education,’ says Sir Harry Studholme, who sends his two sons to Eton and his daughter to Blundell’s.

In 1890, public schools were charging between £20 and £40 a year a breeze for a doctor or lawyer with average earnings of £800 or £900. When Sher-borne School for Girls in Dorset was set up in 1899, school fees were between 69 and 91 guineas (depending on a girl’s age) and teachers were paid about £75 a year. ‘The middle classes were purchasing a cheap education with sweated labour,’ says historian Gillian Avery. Now, it’s only the new professionals who can pay the school fees. The professional footballer, on an average salary of £676,000, need only play two or three matches to send his child to public school. Meanwhile, a barrister must

do some 80 cases a year to pay a child’s school fees, compared to 11 in 1890, and a GP has to treat about 743 patients a year, as opposed to 200 in 1900. ‘The bursar has changed from the enemy to the father confessor,’ says The Good Schools Guide. And the professional working mother is becoming the key to affording private education.

It was only after 1950 that school fees began to get so expensive. Inflation, escalating building costs and, most impor-tantly, the increasing expectations of parents are to blame for spiralling fees. ‘Schools began to compete with each other; if one had a state-of-the art science block, so did the others,’ says Miss Avery. In 1974, average fees doubled in three years, and by 1978, had reached more than £2,000. Twenty years later, fees had escalated to more than £10,000, and, by the end of this decade, will be more than £30,000. Day-pupil fees at public schools have also shot through the roof: Sher-borne School (boys) and Charterhouse now charge more than £20,000.

And what exactly are parents paying for? Queen Ethelburga’s College, whose motto is ‘I can, I will’, furnishes each bedroom with a telephone and voicemail, timer-controlled television/video, tea- and coffee-making facilities, fridge, music centre, hairdryer, ironing facilities and heated towel rail. ‘You need to fit your child’s school to your lifestyle,’ says one public-school mother. ‘If you’re not from London, don’t send your child to a school with too much of a London influence she will obviously want the same as her friends. Sailing holidays in Turkey, and skiing in Colorado are not going to make paying school fees any easier.’

‘My prep school was a major supplier of girls to Benenden, and, when I questioned my parents as to why I was one of the two or three who were going elsewhere, I told that the school would be spoiled by pushy parents trying to impress Princess Anne (who was there at the same time),’ said Susie King, who was at public school in the 1960s. ‘But I think it was because they couldn’t afford the pony jumps and swimming pools.’

Although top-class sports facilities, art blocks and multimedia centres are expected, they are perhaps less important than a school’s environment. ‘I think there’s a lot to be said for being educated in beautiful surroundings,’ says Miss Avery. ‘It’s the only thing I got out of school.’

Parents have always grumbled about school fees particularly the ‘extras’. ‘My parents used to complain about my laundry bill,’ said one former Sherborne girl. ‘It was always so much more than my sister’s, but I think she was just dirty.’ Boarding schools, however, have never expected all the parents to pay full fees. According to one bursar, pre-war housemasters at some schools set their own fees on a sliding scale of what parents could afford. Armed forces, civil engineers and a host of other professions traditionally qualified for cheaper school fees. ‘As a one-time Inspector of Schools for London County Council, my father qualified for a reduction in my school fees,’ says Miss King.

In fact, the original purpose of the British public school was to provide education to gifted boys with poor parents. Winchester College was founded in 1382 to offer free education to 70 poor students through large endowments. Eton College was founded by Henry VI in 1440 on the same model, using money from endowments to fund scholarships and bursaries as well as top-class facilities.

In 2007, public schools offer an expanding range of scholarships and bursaries. ‘We have as many people living in tower blocks as in castles,’ the bursar of Eton says proudly. Eton recently announced it is to raise £50 million to enable one third of its pupils to come from poorer homes.

Christ’s Hospital is another school that remains true to its founding charter as a charitable school. Parents are means-tested and about 18% pay nothing at all. At Blundell’s in Devon, a foundation established in 1604 still finances the full fees of several local children and St Mary’s, Calne offers full scholarships to clever girls unable to afford the fees.But what if your child is not really a scholar? ‘I think you need to be aware of the sacrifice you’ve got to make and never reprimand your children if they don’t perform,’ says one Blundell’s mother. ‘Don’t assume because they are called “charities” that schools will be charitable to you,’ warns The Good Schools Guide.

Sadly, £250,000 down the line, there is no guarantee that your child will emerge from public school as the ‘good egg’ you’d hoped he would be. But if this is the case, it won’t come as much of a surprise you’ll have been told this by his or her houseparent at regular parent’s meetings, matches and school plays. ‘Before, the ethos was “we’ll leave the housemaster to get on with it”, but now parents expect to see what’s going on probably because they’ve invested more money,’ says one parent.

Distance is thus another factor to consider you’ll be doing a lot of driving. And the family car, interestingly, is the one middle-class expense that has risen faster than school fees over the past 50 years. In 1950, fees at Harrow were about £400, the same price as a family car, but by 1980, an average Volvo estate cost just over £7,000 and school fees around £2,500. Parents might be pleased to hear that the balance has been redressed. In 2007, the Volvo V70 2.5l ‘SE’ retails at £26,495, and a year at Eton costs £26,490.