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Bursaries at independent schools

Posted on: 27 Mar 2018
Posted by: Barnaby Lenon

Bursaries - what parents need to know, why do schools offer them and what to do if your school is not receiving as many bursary applicants as hoped.

What parents need to know


Most independent schools offer reduced fees. There are several ways they do this:

  1. Through means-tested bursaries – sometimes called assisted places. The school looks at what it is reasonable for you, as a parent, to afford and sets a fee accordingly.
  2. Through scholarships awarded for exceptional academic promise, a high level of ability in music, other arts or sport.
  3. Through a combination of these – your child might get a scholarship PLUS a bursary.
  4. Through sibling discounts – reduced fees if you have more than one child at the school at any one time.


The details of these will always be found on the schools’ websites. If anything is not clear, ring the school’s admissions office.


Some schools require you to apply for a place a long time in advance, others don’t. Again, you need to check the details on school websites.


Schools have different age points of entry such as age five, seven, 11, 13, and 16. The numbers of bursaries and scholarships on offer vary according to age of entry but tend to be more numerous for older pupils.


For families with lower incomes, a school should normally have a fund which contributes to the costs of extras such as uniform, books and school trips.


Why do schools offer bursaries?


In short, so children of any background can come to our schools.


Bursaries have continued to increase over many years, with both the amount available and the number of children benefitting rising.


ISC schools do everything they can to offer help with fees. Of course, the level of support varies depending on the school and its resources but schools are committed to widening access and are keen to encourage children of any background to come to our schools.


One way in which schools make themselves more accessible to low income families is by offering bursaries worth up to 100% of the fee. Many charitable-status schools regard this approach as part of their historic mission.


Several ISC schools were once Direct Grant schools – whose less well-off pupils were funded by the taxpayer. In schools like Manchester Grammar and King Edward’s Birmingham the majority of pupils came from low income homes before 1976. Schools such as these have found that former pupils who benefitted from such grants are keen to give money back to the school in order to fund bursaries and see the school become more socially diverse.


Bursaries help to create a more balanced student population, which is hugely important for many schools.


Many ISC schools have launched their own bursary fundraising campaigns, with some hoping to become ‘needs blind’, which means that whichever child would benefit from going to the school would be able to have a place, irrespective of their family income.


Schools might mix a small scholarship (not means-tested) with a bursary (means-tested) for pupils from a lower income household .


What to do if your school is not getting as many bursary applicants as hoped


The main problem for some schools is attracting applicants for bursaries. The ISC has conducted some research into attracting applicants for bursaries. Here are some useful tips:


  1. If you have bursary money but don't promote the bursaries vigorously you may be disappointed. Do not underestimate the importance of marketing bursaries. Consider using these methods to do so:
    -form links with primary schools and prep schools so they know about the fee reductions available.
    -advertise in newspapers. Some London schools have formed a consortium to advertise collectively.
    -use former bursary-award holders to promote the school and the bursary system.
    -have special open days for potential bursary applicants so they can be spoken to individually.
    -form links with local housing associations, as Reigate Grammar has, or with clubs for children in disadvantaged areas, as Rugby School has done.
  2. Many parents have no idea what 'bursary' means so this word should not be used in your communication materials without clear explanation.
  3. Some parents are worried that they or their children might not 'fit in'. Past bursary holders can help to counter this concern and show families that this is untrue.

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About Barnaby Lenon

Barnaby Lenon is chairman of ISC.

Barnaby taught at Sherborne School and Eton College for 12 years, was deputy head of Highgate School, head of Trinity School Croydon and head of Harrow (12 years). He has been a governor of twenty-two schools. He is chairman of governors of the London Academy of Excellence, a free school which opened in 2012 in Newham, east London. He is chairman of the Independent Schools Council, a trustee of the Yellow Submarine charity, a director of the New Schools Network and a member of the Advisory Council of Parents and Teachers for Excellence. He has recently published two books: ‘Much Promise: successful schools in England’ and ‘Other People’s Children: what happens to the academically least successful 50%?’