THE number of children attending private schools has dropped for the first time in 10 years.
The latest census by the Independent Schools Council (ISC) showed its member schools were teaching 0.6% fewer pupils in 2005 than the previous year.
Merseyside followed the trend, with reductions in the number of private school pupils of between 1.9% and 3% across Liverpool, Sefton and Wirral.
St Helens was the only borough in the county to see an increase in admissions, with a 1.4% rise at its only independent school.
Last night, education officials blamed falling birth rates but insisted there was no long-term problem.
Simon Dawkins, head of £2,184-a-term Merchant Taylors' School in Crosby, said: "For a number of years now, numbers of pupils attending independent schools have been rising and we at Merchant Taylors' have always found sufficient numbers of well-qualified applicants to maintain our intake.
"The demographic trends which are affecting many schools in the Sefton area may have a short term impact at Merchant Taylors' too, but we are well prepared for this eventuality."
Pauline O'Donnell, admissions director at the £1,663-a-term Runnymede St Edward's School, in Sandfield Park, West Derby, said: "We have maintained our figures and they have even gone up a little. We do know that birth rates are falling, but it has had no knock-on effect here."
But Clive Button, bursar of Birkenhead School, which charges up to £2,300 a term, said his pupil numbers had been declining for almost a decade.
He said: "Since the Government pulled the plug on the Assisted Places Scheme in 1997, we have seen a drop of nearly 25%."
The census was based on the ISC's member schools, which make up 60% of the independent schools in the UK and Ireland. The fall follows nine consecutive years of growth.
The survey revealed the average fee rise at more than 1,200 schools was 5.8%, which the ISC said was the lowest since 1999.
It also showed a sharp decline in the number of foreign children being sent to UK independent schools. Overseas pupil numbers fell by nearly 10% this year.
The census found 1.5% fewer boarders in 2005, a figure which the Boarding Schools' Association (BSA) described as "disappointing".
However, Merseyside's only boarding school, Kingsmead School in Hoylake, Wirral, reported a 2.6% rise in admissions.
Hugh Bradby, head of the £4,130-a-term school, said: "We are gradually creeping up, and I think that is due to the fact we are the only boarding school in the county and we have found a niche market."
The ISC said the overall decline was largely because of a low birth rate, pointing out state schools had seen a greater drop in numbers than the independent sector.
Don Hutton, regional director of the Independent Schools Information Service (ISIS), said: "It is a minimal reduction compared to what is happening elsewhere. It is nothing to worry about."
Clarissa Farr, president of the Girls' Schools Association,, which represents 200 girls' senior independent schools, said: "It is quite clear that recruitment is widely buoyant across the sector."
She said many parents were still attracted to the high-quality education independent schools offered, including "very favourable pupil-teacher ratios".
The census showed independent schools had one member of staff for every 9.98 pupils - the highest ratio ever recorded by the ISC.
The census showed there were 501,580 pupils in the independent schools this year, down from 504,830 in 2004.