If you visit an independent school in Britain today, at some point on your tour your guide will mention the word “bursaries” and offer a comment about the importance of these to the school. But it can be difficult to determine how much fee assistance has actually changed from when you were in school.
Last year a third of pupils in the independent sector received financial support of some sort, totalling nearly one billion pounds, with almost half of the money allocated to means-tested assistance and the rest as non-means tested scholarships and family eligible discounts. The difficulty for parents is knowing where, how and what they should actually apply for. Should they be looking at scholarships, means-tested bursaries or both? As every school has its own eligibility requirements, the answer to this is far from simple.
Here is a guide to help demystify the process:
1. Should I apply for a scholarship or a bursary?
This is one of the most confusing areas. A scholarship is an award for excellence that may or may not have a financial benefit. Bursaries are means-tested financial assistance that may or may not require exceptional talent. But every school has its own rules, and it is also possible to apply for a scholarship and then top up the award with a bursary. Westminster School, with its 80 Oxbridge offers this year, gives scholarships with financial awards and means-tested bursaries. A Queen’s Scholar must have incredible academic acumen and is rewarded with a 50 per cent non-means-tested fee remission. The 5 per cent of pupils who benefit from the school’s £2.4 million annual bursary allocation have to pass the usual entry exams, followed by means testing, parental interviews and home visits (for 11+ only).
2. Do all scholarships have financial rewards?
No, increasingly scholarships are nominal awards to ensure that financial help is not given to families who could otherwise pay. At Wellington College scholarships have carried no financial benefit since 2014, but are recognised “in terms of prestige and honour”. All their bursaries are means tested with their primary focus being on giving 110 per cent awards (where fees, uniform, trips and essential equipment like laptops are paid for by the school) to children who come from backgrounds in the bottom half of the population in terms of income and opportunity, and the college works with educational charities to identify prospective pupils. Although no specific talent is required of these children, they must show the potential to meet the college’s academic criteria.
3. How do I apply?
Unfortunately, this is complicated as every school has a different admissions process and there is no UCAS equivalent or free database that connects children to suitable bursaries, so the onus falls to parents to look at each school’s website and follow up with an email. It’s advisable to take a scatter-gun approach to applications, applying to a number of suitable schools. However, please be reassured that schools are really happy to guide you. There are a number of charities that will help with your application and explain your child’s eligibility including Royal Springboard.
4. What’s important to know?
Be honest with the schools: honest about your finances and honest about your child’s potential. When applying for any means-tested fee remission you are going to have to open up your finances to scrutiny. One mother told me: “In terms of the application process you have to give all information on your finances each year including copies of bank statements, pensions, Isas, council tax, mortgage, payslips etc etc.” Some schools will require home visits. In addition to establishing financial details, of course, your child will have to pass the school’s entrance exam. Many top schools have huge competition for places, so it’s essential to have a realistic conversation with the admissions department.
5. What is needs-blind?
The majority of private school headteachers I interview say that they would like to offer a place to every well-suited pupil that applies to the school, irrespective of their ability to pay. However, the financial burden of becoming needs-blind has, so far, proved prohibitive. Christ’s Hospital, which was founded in 1552, is the closest Britain has to achieving needs-blind education in the independent school sector in Britain. This boarding school, situated on 1,200 acres of West Sussex countryside, offers fee assistance to nearly 80 per cent of its pupils, with £18.2 million pounds per annum of bursary support given. However, with seven applicants per place, the entry process is highly competitive and includes an online test, followed by a two-day residential assessment.
6. How are bursaries paid for?
Recognising the enormous benefits of a culturally and socio-economically diverse student body, many schools have embarked on ambitious fundraising projects to increase their bursary endowments. Rugby School recently sold some masterpieces, including a rare Van Leyden, raising £15 million. This fundraising is augmented by the profits raised from developing international schools in Thailand and Japan (due to open in 2022), which is then funnelled back into the British home school for bursaries. Rugby’s Arnold Foundation offers free boarding places to talented children, and there are currently 28 such students at the school, in addition to the 42 per cent of pupils on some fee-remission.
7. Can my current school help?
Absolutely! Many private schools say they struggle to find enough pupils to take up the available places, especially those from the low-income families they’re so keen to help. They offer mentoring, exam support and share facilities with neighbouring state schools and this helps familiarise prospective pupils. With Independent Schools Council schools engaged in 11,466 state partnerships in 2019, this reach is significant. Godolphin and Latymer School in Hammersmith, for example, has recently launched its Bridge academic enrichment programme for local state school pupils, part of which aims to demystify the bursary application process for parents. Head teachers from 17 local primary schools nominated 44 boys and girls to attend Saturday morning lessons and intensive five-day programmes to help prepare children for the 11+ entrance assessments.
8. Are scholarships just for academic children?
No, children with talent in sport, drama, art, dance and music looking for fee assistance may also impress admissions departments. Children with great sporting prowess should look at Millfield in Somerset, which offers £5.7 million in fee assistance per annum. Known for its sporting prowess, if Millfield had represented as a country in the 2012 Olympics, it would have medalled above Canada. Children with musical ability should look at choir schools – Westminster Cathedral Choir School offers 25 per cent fee-remission for choristers.
Tori Cadogan is education editor for Tatler