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Pupils at Harrow School

Most private schools in the United Kingdom offer scholarships and bursaries to children who are exceptionally talented or whose parents would otherwise be unable to afford the school fees. The value of these scholarships and bursaries can be worth as much as the full school fees, as little as the cost of a few course books and anything in between.

Can I get my child into a private school for free? 

A private school education is out of reach for most people these days. Fees have rocketed in relation to salaries and rich families and professional parents, who may themselves have been privately educated and would traditionally have paid for their children to do the same, now looking for cheaper alternatives outside of the private sector or a way to make private school more affordable. These days, one-third of pupils educated in the private sector receive some form of ‘fee assistance’. 

Could my child win a scholarship or bursary?

Good schools want able children. Awarding places to academic superstars, winners on the sports field or masters of art, music or drama raise schools’ results, adds silverware to their trophy cabinets and lustre to their reputation. Many schools offer scholarships to attract the brightest and most talented but you do not have to have a child prodigy to land a reduction in fees. Bursaries are also given to children who meet the school’s academic standard but do not have the family finances to pay for a place. As charitable foundations, many private schools are obligated to extend their provision to children who merit places but whose parents cannot afford the fees.

What is a private school scholarship?

Almost all private secondary schools offer scholarships in order to attract especially talented pupils. The awards process is often highly competitive but the scholarships themselves are usually worth more in kudos than cash. The value of a scholarship is rarely worth more than 10 per cent of fees and can be as little as £100 in vouchers for art supplies for an art scholar. Even a King’s Scholarship from Eton College is worth just 10 per cent of fees. However, scholars often have special privileges, extra coaching or tuition in their chosen discipline and additional trips, tours and mentoring for the duration of their time at the school. 

If the recipient of a small scholarship is unable to afford the remaining school fees, it is not unusual for additional bursaries to be granted. Schools spend their funds carefully but would usually look to provide further assistance to an outstanding candidate if it meant the child would be able to accept the scholarship and take up a place at the school.

More generous scholarship funds do exist at the most ancient of public schools such as Eton, Harrow, Winchester et al as a result of large endowments and the many centuries in which to accrue legacies from grateful old boys. Scholarships covering 100% of fees at such schools are often means-tested and aim to take very able boys from modest backgrounds.

Music and Dance Scheme Schools
Chetham’s School of Music, Manchester
The Purcell School, Hertfordshire
Wells Cathedral School, Somerset
The Yehudi Menuhin School, Surrey
Elmhurst Ballet School, Birmingham
The Hammond School, Chester
Royal Ballet School, London
Tring Park School, Hertfordshire

Scholarships for children with particular backgrounds or interests

Financial assistance may be available at some schools for families with a particular background. Look out for esoteric scholarships, for example for the children of clergy, doctors or single parents. Licensed Victualler’s School in Ascot gives discounts to the children of parents working in the licensed drinks trade (from bar staff to brewers); Royal Hospital School in Suffolk does similarly for the children of seafarers.

Specialist interests are also supported. Do the research (or speak to The Good Schools Guide’s education consultants) and you can find scholarships in everything from chess or physics, to tennis or sailing. Funding can come from outside the school too. The government still (happily) runs a national Music and Dance Scheme which enables truly talented pupils to secure substantial help (sometimes 100 per cent of fees) at specialist schools such as The Purcell School in Bushey. See adjacent table:

Do prep schools offer scholarships?

Scholarships, like most financial assistance, are like gold dust at junior or prep school levelChoral scholarships at choir schools can be found up and down the UK and so are the obvious exception to this rule. Choral scholarships rarely cover full fees (30 to 50 per cent is the norm) but the coaching the scholars receive often makes them attractive candidates for a further music scholarship to a top public school.

Some prep schools may offer scholarships or exhibitions (the name for a minor scholarship) for pupils entering year 7 once they have had a chance to demonstrably develop their skills – these are often given to internal candidates who have consistently proved their mettle over previous years. Others may provide fee assistance to children joining from state schools in year 6 or 7 to work for common entrance.

Internal scholarships

If you’ve already got your foot in the door and are swallowing the termly fee bill through gritted teeth, keep your eyes open for internal scholarship or bursary opportunities which occur at various stages, mainly sixth form.

What is a private school bursary?

Bursaries enable capable children from less well-off families to attend private school. The recipient doesn’t need to be outstanding in any particular field but they do need to meet the standard academic entrance requirements and impress at interview. A private school bursary can be worth up to 100 per cent of fees – and in some cases, even more to cover essentials like uniform, stationery and travel. They are nearly always means-tested; a process which sees the applicant family undergo a thorough investigation of their financial circumstances by the school bursar or an external auditing company.

Some schools publish their threshold for family income below which they may consider an applicant for a means-tested bursary although most keep the exact figure under their hat. The threshold can be surprisingly high, particularly in London, so don’t rule out your own suitability and eligibility. Your income is just one aspect that will be checked. Schools may well look at the value of your assets and assess other outgoings such as holidays. They also take into consideration other financial commitments such as the number of children or other dependents. Each school has its own rules and ways of making their decisions and some are more transparent about these than others. It can never hurt to enquire about bursarial assistance at any school that interests you.

Can schools award scholarships and bursaries together?

It is possible to hold both a scholarship and a bursary - and many able children do. For example, the child might be supremely intelligent or a stellar sportsperson and be offered a place on a scholarship in line with their abilities and talent. The scholarship may include some help with the fees (perhaps 10%) but an amount not nearly enough for the child's parents to be able to cover the remaining costs. In such a scenario, providing you make the school aware of your financial situation and open yourself up to their means-testing process, the school may award additional bursaries alongside your scholarship to make it possible for your child to attend the school.

How do you get a scholarship or bursary?

The most important thing is to be realistic about your child and your financial circumstances. If your child is doing nicely, above average in his state primary, enjoying his sport or music but not exactly an Emma Raducanu or a Sheku Kanneh-Mason, then he is probably not destined for a scholarship. But if your family income is unexceptional and you don’t keep a portfolio of properties, then you could find a school willing to offer you a bursary. If you own a semi-detached in London and a cottage in Dorset, keep a boat and a string of horses and ski in Chamonix every winter, you are unlikely to be taken seriously as a candidate for a bursary - however bright your child. Although, if your child was reading at 3, knew his tables at 4 and devoured science books whole at 7, then you may have a potential scholar on your hands.

No school owes you a bursary. You may think your child is brilliant and a constant delight. You may know he would flourish at this or that school or that the school would be thrilled to have her if they knew how wonderful she is. But remember, the school is not only assessing your child but also deciding whether they want to bring your whole family into the school community. Arguing with the school, nagging the school or threatening the school will merely make them determined not to take your child. No school willingly takes on a child with an annoying parent. Do not lose your sense of proportion. Schools make their own rules and work to their own timetables:

  • Be on time and be organised. If your child gets the offer of a place and you then decide to ask about bursaries, it may well be too late.
  • Be scrupulously honest. Answer all the questions - whether about your child's tutoring (if any), whether the school is your first choice, your income etc - without reserve.
  • Don't pressure your child. Your child wants to succeed. He or she wants to please you and would love to get a place at Brainbox Towers, but no child does well at exams or interviews if they are anxious. Always approach it as a ‘let's give it a try’ exercise.

Finally, always have a plan B. Worst case scenario, the offer doesn’t come through and you have to kiss goodbye to your dream of a private school education for your child, at least for the time being. Do you know your state school options as well as you should? Make sure you’re up to speed on what’s available and not to be too down on the local secondary comprehensive options.

Private school bursaries from charitable trusts

Charitable grant-making trusts can help in cases of genuine need but do be aware that charitable trusts and grant organisations have strict criteria and usually require social need to be the contributing factor to the application for funds. The Royal National Children’s SpringBoard Foundation provides bursaries to help disadvantaged children attend state or independent boarding schools.

The ‘social needs’ recognised by the grant-making trusts are usually:

  • Boarding need, where the home environment is unsuitable because of the disability or illness of the parents or of siblings
  • Unforeseen family disaster, such as the sudden death of the breadwinner when a child is already at school
  • Need for continuity when a pupil is in the middle of a GCSE or A level course and a change in parental circumstances threatens their place at the school
  • Need for special education where there is a genuine recognised learning difficulty which cannot be catered for at a state school.

Photo credit: Harrow School, London

Want help from The Good Schools Guide in finding a scholarship or bursary for your child?

The Good Schools Guide has a number of consultants who are expert in the field of scholarships and bursaries. They can advise and support you in an application for either a scholarship and/or a bursary.

Read about our Scholarships and Bursaries help or to speak directly with one of the team, email [email protected] or call 0203 286 6824.

Most popular Good Schools Guide articles

  • Scholarships and bursaries – common sense, dos and don’ts

    Scholarships are there to be won. In general, scholarships are awarded to candidates who excel – either academically or in sports, arts, music etc. Most scholarships these days are not worth a large percentage of the fees though this is not universally true and, for example, a music scholarship can, in some cases, be worth up to half the normal school fee. Some scholarships are largely honorary which means that the scholar gets the glory but very little fee remission. Scholarships do not depend on the family income.

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