The cost of private school has continued to rise despite the pandemic. According to data collected by schoolfeeschecker.co.uk which collects and publishes comprehensive fee data for UK independent schools, the average cost of secondary education rose by 7% on the previous year in 2021 – more than double the rate of inflation.
Despite this, the number of children in private education has never been higher. This is due in large part to the growing pressure on schools in recent years to justify their charitable status by increasing accessibility of places to lower-income families. According to the Independent Schools Council, which represents more than 1,300 private schools across the UK, the last ten years has seen an increase in the amount of funds available in the form of ‘bursaries’ grow by over £175 million to £440 million. Perhaps this explains why as many as a third of all children in private education are receiving some sort of financial assistance with their fees.
But what is a bursary and how can you benefit from these funds to secure a place for your child at your target school?
What is a Private School Bursary?
First, it’s important to distinguish between a bursary and a scholarship. Both are financial awards made to children with demonstrable talent in a particular area. However, the specific aim of a bursary is to directly assist talented pupils lacking the financial means for a private education. For this reason, bursaries (unlike most scholarships) are also strictly means-tested.
Bursary awards are usually much larger than scholarships, with many amounting to 100% of tuition fees compared to the average 10-25% reduction given for a scholarship. In addition, a bursary can cover more than just the fees themselves, with some schools even assisting with uniforms, transport and laptops, etc. It’s not surprising then that competition for bursaries each year is in good health. In fact, with such large incentives at stake, there is little doubt that even more parents would apply for a bursary if there was a greater awareness of what’s on offer and how to secure it.
How and When Do I Apply for a Private School Bursary?
Staying organised is key to any successful application. Remember that nearly all bursary funds will be allocated by January in the year your child starts school, so you will need to plan well ahead. Do as much research as you can to find the schools which are going to be the best fit for your child and create a shortlist of your favourites.
Having identified your target schools, find out what financial support is available there and whether they offer a bursary. Many schools will list this information on their website, but you can also reach out to their bursar or admissions team if you need more information. Remember too, there may be other sources of funding available beyond the coffers of the schools themselves. Many of these are listed online at the Educational Trust Forum.
Once you’ve established that financial help is available, you need to consider whether your child would meet the entrance requirements of the school. If you’re targeting admission to the school at the 11+ stage, speak with your child’s teachers early on (towards the end of Year 5) to try to gauge their academic progress and current attainment. Discuss with their teachers whether they would expect your child to pass the entrance exam on their current trajectory and, if not, the areas in which they might need further support to develop. Remember, not all children will thrive in an academically competitive environment, so try to bear this in mind before making the commitment to apply.
You should also bear in mind that your child, having won a funded-place, will have to continue to demonstrate commitment and ability in their school-life, and that bursaries will usually have to be re-applied for each year. Consider what you would do if circumstances changed in the future and the bursary was reduced.
Means Testing and the Maximum Salary for a Private School Bursary
A gross family income of less that £20,000 per year is probably sufficiently low to be considered for a bursary. However, for some prestigious schools where the fees are much higher than average, bursaries have previously been awarded to families with gross annual income as high as £90,000. Whatever the threshold of your target school, always make sure you have the relevant documentation (payslips, bank statements, etc.) to hand, as schools will ask to see this during the application process.
In addition to gross earnings, most schools will also want to know about additional income and assets such as pensions, savings and other investments in detail. Also, expect to discuss the types of holiday you go on, the outstanding balance on your mortgage and whether there are any other relatives who could potentially contribute towards the fees. Of course, if you’re mortgage-free and regularly skiing in Verbier then the school is unlikely to consider you a priority for financial assistance. However, don’t leave anything out – the schools will consider your application more sympathetically if you are completely honest. They will probably also take your application more seriously if you’ve made them aware from the outset that you would require additional funding to accept a place.
In conclusion then, being organised in your approach as well as honest with the people you’re dealing with will be key to making your application for a bursary as strong as possible. Expect the process to be exacting and, at times, even adversarial. However, try not to let your child see this, and always make sure they’re not feeling under any extra pressure to pass the entrance exams, etc. Remember too that, though they may be stars of their local primary school, they will be competing for a funded place with other high-performing children, many of whom will have been rigorously prepped and tutored for this application process. Whatever the outcome, your approach to them should always be ‘Give it a go and see what happens …’