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UK pound notes16 June 2021

More children than ever are receiving financial help to enable them to pay private school fees according to latest data from the Independent Schools Council, the body that represents most UK fee-paying schools. 

Over the past year, private schools handed out £938m-worth of scholarships and bursaries to 157,000 pupils – that’s about 30% of all children in private schools. 

The biggest chunk of all this money comes in the form of means-tested fee assistance, namely bursaries. Scholarships - more details here - require the child to demonstrate excellence in sport, performing arts, art or academics and are rarely means-tested. These days they are often nominal and tend only to offer small discounts on fees. Bursaries, however, are allocated according to the applicant family’s financial situation. 

The families of the 42,000 children currently receiving bursaries would have undergone a thorough financial investigation by the school or their appointed auditors. Income is assessed, property investigated and assets scrutinized. It should be meticulous - schools don't want to give funds to people who don't need it - but fair. Schools look at the whole picture. Unavoidable financial commitments such as maintaining elderly parents in a care home or the expenses incurred by a disabled family member, for example, should be taken into account but the school needs to be certain that potential beneficiaries are worthy ones. This cross-examination is endured by families in the hope that it will result in an offer of reduced school fees. Some would be delighted by a 5% reduction, others could accept nothing less than 100%. 

But why do schools award bursaries and which children are most likely to receive them?

Providing it has the resources - worth mentioning here that not all do - a school can give a bursary to any child they deem to be deserving. Usually, the school operates as a charity (they pay less tax than if they were a company) and this charitable status is dependent on ongoing charitable activities. Look up these schools with the Charity Commission and you will see phrases in mission statements like ‘widening access’, ‘the advancement of education’ and ‘the provision of financial assistance.’ It may seem unlikely given their present-day largesse but many of the more famous independent schools owe their existence to their charitable beginnings. Eton College was founded by King Henry VI in 1441 to educate ‘seventy poor boys’ free of charge. Winchester College had similar beginnings fifty years earlier, courtesy of the local bishop, and many other schools first opened their doors thanks to endowments from rich merchants, nobility and the church.

Clearly much has changed in the intervening centuries. Nowadays, in the age of compulsory education, these schools offer an elite education for a small minority of children – and only a few of those get it for free. It is no surprise that their charitable status is controversial for some but the schools assert that as long as they they provide free and subsidised places to deserving candidates (as well as the work done in the community and with local state schools), they are more than justifying their charitable status.

Your child doesn’t need to be exceptionally bright, a great athlete or a brilliant artist or musician to receive a bursary but they do need to be able to match the level and expectations of the school. This means passing the entrance assessments like any other applicant. 

In 2021, what do your family finances have to look like to be considered for bursary money? Most schools keep their cards fairly close to their chest on this one and each will have different criteria with some year-to-year elasticity depending on the range of applicants and their needs. 

St Paul’s School, a London boys’ school ever-present at the top of league tables, took the unusual step a few years ago of publicly declaring that it would consider bursary applications from families with an annual income up to £120,000. A clutch of nearby schools followed with their own similar announcements. This surprised many because clearly, it’s hard to justify charitable help for families in the top half of that income bracket. The schools explained it was warranted due to the extortionate costs of living in London and that, if a child was a good fit for their school, they wanted to lend a hand. Doctors, teachers, civil servants and other professionals would have once made up a large proportion of the parent body but had been priced out due to the fee increases in recent years. Bursaries aimed at these professional families would go some way to redress this balance and save the school from a clientel comprising only the super-rich and a minority of low-income families. It would be unlikely that St Paul’s, St Paul’s Girls, Godolphin & Latymer et al would offer such a middle-income family a 100% bursary but, if offering a small reduction makes it financially manageable, they are willing to help bridge the gap.

Further indications that schools are keen to help middle-income families can be seen in the latest ISC data. Nearly a quarter of all bursary recipients received no more than 25% off the fees. The message we take from this is that there are plenty of families who might otherwise be considered fairly well-off receiving that little bit of help to pay school fees. Therefore, it's reasonable to suggest that if you want your child to attend private school but know the costs could be a struggle, ask yourself whether a small reduction in fees would make it manageable. If the answer is yes, ask your preferred schools what bursarial support they may have available – you’ll know deep down if you’re an improbable candidate for a top whack bursary but you won’t be offered a penny without applying! 

And for those with bigger needs, there are, of course, bigger bursaries. The Girls’ Day School Trust, a 150 year-old foundation which runs a group of top independent girls’ schools states on its website that it ‘focuses its support on girls for whom the chance of a GDST education would be a transformative and life-changing experience.’ At this end of the scale, the ‘transformative and life-changing’ bursaries tend to mean 100% or 100+% (sometimes called ‘110%’ because of the additional money for uniform and transport). In 2020, 6,509 children benefitted from one of these. That’s just 1.2% of all children currently attending private school and the majority of those are at large senior schools. These bursaries are like hen’s teeth, but again, if you don’t ask, you won’t get.

Another route to such a golden ticket is The Royal National Children's SpringBoard Foundation which works with schools, local authorities and community groups to match children with schools offering big bursaries. It’s work truly is transformative and life-changing. 

Schools want to put their bursary funds to good use and they know that maintaining a diverse pupil population is important to their future success. There’s no guarantee you’ll bag that bursary you want but schools are investing more money each year into their funds and will do their best to help deserving candidates.

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

The Good Schools Guide Education Consultants holds a unique central database of information on the scholarships and bursaries offered by UK independent schools. If you have a gifted child but limited finances, a confidential discussion with our experts before speaking to individual schools may help determine your next step. 

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

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