Making independent education affordable

In an article in The best in Education 2013, Kevin Fear, Head of Nottingham High School and Chair of HMC's Communications Committee, talks about fee assistance through bursaries and scholarships.

Independent schools are often portrayed as being full of the privileged elite of our country and way beyond the means of most ordinary people.  Yet, at the same time more parents than ever would choose to educate their child at an independent school if they could afford it, according to a recent survey by Populus of 2,057 adults commissioned by the Independent Schools Council (ISC) found that nearly six out of ten (57 per cent) of parents would send their child to an independent school if they could afford to.  Given this, how might such an education become affordable for those wanting an independent school education for their son or daughter but who cannot afford the fees involved?

The vast majority of independent secondary schools and some independent preparatory schools offer bursaries to widen access to the education provided by their schools to those who cannot afford the full tuition fees.  These range from small amounts to those on middle-incomes to full fee assistance for those who need the help the most.  In this way, an independent education can become affordable to anyone in society, even if parents are not in work at all.

Bursaries are forms of means-tested assistance which in effect reduce the fees for the time that the child attends the School.  The number of bursaries on offer will vary from school to school but virtually every independent school will provide information on their websites as to what is available. 

It is likely to be the case that the application process involves a full assessment of the financial and other circumstances of the family.  Each School will only have limited funds available but the School should be able to tell you roughly how many bursaries they give out each year.  The amount of funding you are eligible for will depend on your own finances but can be up to full school fees so there are many students who pay nothing at all to attend some of the best schools in the country.

Schools will then have their own systems to determine between all those who might be eligible for a bursary place.  Many will use the final rank order of academic placement in their entrance exams; others will have their own systems.  Each successful candidate who has applied for and qualifies financially for a bursary will be offered a bursary place, in rank order, until the available funds for Bursary support are exhausted.  Some schools will also offer similar support for uniform and similar costs.

Some schools will publish scales of how much support is available at different income levels.  If they do not, it is worth ringing the finance department of the School to outline your own means and to ask if they are prepared to give you an indicative figure.  If this does not elicit any information then approach the Head direct!

The forms Schools ask you to fill out will vary but generally are comprehensive in looking at your full financial picture and they are likely to ask for documentary evidence such as bank statements.  Schools are likely to take into account the value of your home.  Don’t be put off by the level of detail required.  Schools have a duty to ensure that their charitable funds are used in the most appropriate way.  The home visit done by some schools is again designed to ensure that help is being given to those that genuinely need it rather than to those with clever accountants!

Once a bursary has been awarded schools remain committed to support your child throughout their time in the School.  The sum given though may vary so that if your circumstances significantly improve the level of bursary will fall but if your circumstances worsen then the bursary will increase.  Most schools ask for fresh financial information annually to ensure that the bursary amount remains fair but if your income remains the same then the bursary too is likely to be consistent. 

Bursaries can be given to more than one child from the same family but they will need to individually meet whatever criteria are being used to decide how bursaries are awarded.  There is often a great deal of competition for bursaries but this will vary from school to school.  Bursaries are available at both day and boarding schools and will cover the higher costs of the boarding school fees.

It is important to note that once pupils join the School on a bursary they will be treated in the same way as every other child.  It is very unlikely that beyond the Head and the governors that many staff will be aware and at no stage would other pupils be made aware of those who are on bursaries. Such pupils become full members of the School and share the same experiences as their friends who may be paying fees.  Many schools will also have funds which bursary holders can draw on to go on school trips and visits.

Finally, there is some financial help open to all families irrespective of their own levels of wealth.  These take the form of scholarships which can be given for academic, artistic, musical, sporting or other areas of talent.  Scholarships are for a fixed sum per annum and are offered on the basis of merit in the particular area.  They provide, in effect, a discount off the published fee.  Be careful though!  Some schools use these widely to discount fees, others are much more sparing.  It is always worth considering what you end up paying as a large discount off a much larger fee is not always better than paying the full price of a much lower fee!  Whilst in some schools there is real prestige associated with being a scholar in many they are given out very widely as in effect a discount off the inflated published price.  Music scholarships are often given to allow reduced price teaching of particular instruments.

So, in conclusion, fee assistance is widely available to genuinely open up the finest independent schools to people of all classes, all income levels.  Those of us who work in the independent sector though are always surprised that there are not more applicants for such places and it is definitely worth getting in touch with your local independent school to find out more about what they might have available.  The majority of parents would like their children to attend such schools and bursaries make this possible for all in society.  Independent schools provide more than £280 million annually in means-tested bursaries, an increase of 9.4% on last year, with over a quarter of all pupils receiving fee assistance from their school.

Kevin Fear is Head of Nottingham High School and Chair of HMC's Communications Committee