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In 2023, UK private schools spent half a billion pounds on bursaries. These sought-after awards are means-tested, ensuring that only the most deserving applicants benefit. But how does means-testing actually work? Jo Beer, Managing Director at Bursary Assessment Associates, explains.

Sheets of new £10 notes, feature King Charles III, before they are sliced into separate notes26 June 2024

As part of their charitable purpose, some independent schools offer means-tested fee assistance (known as bursaries) to widen access for families from all walks of life.

With the need to account for every penny spent, it is vital that the due diligence is undertaken by schools and to ensure each application is robust and consistent. That’s where Bursary Assessment Associates come in, acting for schools across the UK to carry out an independent financial review of each application, ensuring that charitable funds are spent wisely and in accordance with their bursary policy.

Each school has its own bursary strategy with a clear view on the type of families they want to support. We work with schools whose main focus is to offer transformational bursaries of 100 per cent and we also have client schools who wish to support middle income families with part bursaries, taking the view that they can help more families by spreading their funds.  

Most schools set maximum gross household income levels and families earning above this are unlikely to qualify for support. For London schools, income limits can be quite high – typically more than £100k per household – although we also see schools whose limits are as low as £50k because they want to attract families for their transformational 100 per cent awards. It is therefore essential that parents do their research before embarking on the application process to ensure their circumstances match the school’s bursary strategy.  

What does the bursary application and assessment process involve?

Working with 4,000 applicants each year, we know all too well that the application and assessment process can seem daunting and opaque to families, so we want to help demystify this for you. You can usually expect the following steps:

  • The family contacts the school’s admissions team, who can advise you about the bursary policy and decision criteria so you can work out if you are eligible to continue with the application process.
  • The school supplies a bursary application form. There will be strict deadlines for this to be completed and you will also need to include supporting documents such as payslips, bank statements and mortgage statements.  
  • Following receipt of your application, some schools will ask you to meet with a representative to discuss your application in more detail. Families sometimes worry about this meeting but try to see it as a great opportunity to provide further context. Forms can only cover so much, and it is really helpful for the school to know as much as possible about your family background when they are making their decisions.
  • The financial assessment takes place alongside you and your child going through the usual admissions assessment.

What do schools expect from bursary applicants?

You’ll need to show commitment, invest serious time and be transparent. A bursary can be a considerable award. Across a five or seven year tenure at senior school, it is well into six figures. We often compare it to applying for a mortgage that doesn’t need to be repaid – this should give you a good idea of how robust the process is. We always ensure that support is available in completing the application. However, applicants who obfuscate or resist providing a full declaration will not be considered suitable candidates for financial support.

In undertaking assessments on behalf of our client schools, our role is to carefully validate each applicant’s declaration against the supporting documentation and to meet with the family to determine how their circumstances align against the school’s specific bursary policy/criteria. While each school has its own criteria, every family’s situation is unique and sometimes there might be elements that don’t fit with the school’s criteria but for which there may be acceptable explanations. That’s why each application is assessed on a case-by-case basis and why meeting with the family can help the school’s decision panel to see the full picture. If in doubt, we advising calling to the bursar to discuss your specific circumstances before applying.  

How are your finances assessed?

  • Income Schools will want to see evidence that both parents are maximising their earning potential; they should both be working in jobs commensurate with their skills and experience unless there are exceptional reasons why it isn’t possible. Both parents will need to make a declaration of income received from all sources, including regular support received from wider family members such as grandparents. This is carefully validated against the supporting evidence to ensure the declaration is an accurate reflection of the gross household income.  
  • Management of expenditure Schools will want to see that families are making financial sacrifices to contribute towards school fees; they are unlikely to see expensive meals out, frequent holidays, high performance cars or other discretionary spending such as an expensive gym membership, domestic cleaner or nanny as commensurate with a bursary recipient. The same goes if full fees are paid for a sibling to attend another independent school, unless there is an exceptional reason.  
  • What assets the family have at their disposal Families will make a full declaration of their assets and liabilities, together with supporting evidence. An average family home is an allowable asset, though second properties are questioned in most bursary policies. Large savings would be expected to be used towards school fees.  

How does the process conclude?

The final part of the jigsaw for us is our recommendation to the school. This covers both how much financial support a family would need, along with an overview of how the family’s lifestyle aligns with their bursary policy.

The school uses this information, together with the child’s academic assessments, to make a final decision.

As you can see, a bursary application is an endeavour that requires research, time and engagement from families, however the reward for successful applicants is truly worthwhile. In our experience, the most successful applicants tend to be those who have taken the time to research a school’s academic and financial criteria before fully engaging in the process. We wish you the best of luck in your next steps!

Headshot of Jo Beer, Managing Director of Bursary Assessment AssociatesJo Beer is founder of Bursary Assessment Associates. She is passionate about social mobility, having personal experience of the barriers which exist to young people in accessing opportunities. Through her work at BAA, Jo works to find innovative ways to make opportunities accessible to all.

Bursary Assessment Associates is the go-to organisation for independent schools across the UK when it comes to bursary provision and supports over 4,000 families on their bursary application journey. Founded in 2017, we provide a fully outsourced bursary application and assessment solution which is independent, robust, fair, and accessible for families. 


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