A Guide To Private School Scholarships and Bursaries

English teacher, private tutor and journalist, Kristina Murkett, writes a detailed guide on applying for scholarships and bursaries at private schools.

It’s fair to say that paying for independent school fees is out of financial reach for most people. The cost of sending a child to a private school has soared far above the rate of inflation; according to data from the Independent Schools Council (ISC), a private education is nearly 50% more expensive than a decade ago.

Yet despite this increase, the number of UK pupils in private education has never been higher. How can this be?

The answer is simple: generous financial assistance in the form of scholarships and bursaries.

Schools are under increasing social, political and governmental pressure to fulfil the obligations of their charity status. More and more schools are offering financial support to assist aspirational families on lower incomes and give life-changing opportunities to talented students. According to the 2019 consensus by the IMC, 34% of pupils educated independent schools received help with their fees, at a cost of £1billion.

Nonetheless, it can be difficult for parents and families to navigate the application system, especially if they are unfamiliar with the procedure. Many parents want help to demystify the process and clarify some of the jargon used so that they can feel confident about evaluating their options.

The difference between scholarships and bursaries

Traditionally, scholarships are awarded to students based on their ability and performance. This could be in a number of areas: academics, art, music, dance, sport, choir or drama. Bursaries, on the other hand, are awarded on the basis of financial need, and are normally given to families after an assessment of their income, assets and outgoings. Some schools, such as Godolphin and Latymer, do their own means testing and calculations, whilst others outsource to third-party organisations.

Over the last 10 years there has been a general shift away from scholarships, with more money reserved for bursaries instead, no doubt as a result of a growing need to increase access and diversity. Scholarships now generally attract a very modest reduction in school fees; even a King’s Scholarship from Eton is only worth 10% of the fees, whereas there are 75 boys at Eton now on full bursaries.

Some schools also offer very specialist scholarships and bursaries, and so it is worth doing your homework. For example, Eltham College in south London offers a 50% reduction in fees to the children of ‘chemists, travelling salesman and grocers’, whilst Lanthallan School near Dundee has scholarships for children with an interest in ‘bagpipes or marching drums.’

Some bursaries have also been set up to specifically benefit certain communities. At Harrow School, pupils who have lived in nine London boroughs for more than two years may be eligible for financial help from John Lyon’s charity, whilst Christ’s Hospital School in Sussex offers a specific scholarship to pupils from the Isle of Wight. Alleyn’s School in Dulwich has a specific trust dedicated to providing bursaries for local pupils who are exceptionally talented at music.

The ISC website is a great place to start your research; it has a very useful search tool which allows you to refine schools by different types of scholarships and bursaries. The London Fee Assistance Consortium is also incredibly helpful. The results of gaining a scholarship or bursary can be life changing, some families choose to work with one of our experienced Education Consultants, throughout the application process.

The application process

The eligibility criteria for financial assistance varies from school to school. For example, schools such as Westminster do not have an “exact financial criteria for bursaries,” whilst others have strict benchmarks: King Edward’s School in Birmingham has an income limit of £72,000 and an asset limit of £500,000.

At some schools, the family income threshold for bursaries can be surprisingly high (on a sliding scale of up to £90,000), and so it is well worth investigating either by searching the school’s website or calling the admission’s office.

You can apply directly through a school, or through a trust. The Educational Trusts Forum also offers a comprehensive list of trusts that offer financial help by virtue of your job, birthplace, or even your religion. For example, there are trusts that give out grants if you are Scottish, a member of the armed forces, a single parent, or Catholic.

Wherever they decide to apply, parents can expect the process to be rigorous. They should be prepared to provide 12 months of bank statements for all their accounts, including ISAs and other savings, plus evidence of income through P60s and payslips. Schools may also look at your mortgage, your car, previous holidays and family situation (for example, if you have relatives who can help). If circumstances change, for better or for worse, then it is likely the bursary will be adjusted too.

Philip Marshall, Assistant Head and Director of Admissions at City of London School For Boys, gives three main pieces of advice to prospective parents. He says, “Firstly, be proactive. Start your research in advance – later in year 4 or early in year 5 is a good time to start if you are thinking of the 11+. This will help to remove some of the stress from your mind and give you plenty of time to decide on the best school for your child. Secondly, if you are nervous about not being able to attend open days due to the current pandemic, make sure you look at schools’ websites, which can be a goldmine for information and often have videos to help give you an impression of the school. Thirdly, also look out for transformative bursaries, which offer more than just free tuition: some also give assistance with transport costs, uniform, trips and technology, too.”

Working out timings

It is important to contact the school directly to find out about individual deadlines and procedures. For example, some schools offer academic scholarships purely on the basis of entry exam performance, whilst at other schools you have to apply to sit a separate scholarship paper. For bursaries, most schools ask that you register your child for consideration by filling out an application (and a preliminary financial assessment) before the entrance tests, but exact dates will vary.

There are many arguments to consider when deciding whether to send your child to state or private school, but there is also the question of when; many parents will also wonder which entry point (7+, 11+, 13+, 16+) is best for their child. It is also worth remembering that not every intake will offer the same number of scholarships and bursaries.

State primary schools can work well if you have an able child who has little difficulty with reading, writing and arithmetic, whilst on the other end of the spectrum, pupils with learning needs and an EHCP (Education, Health and Social Care plan) will also get one-to-one help for free. Most parents will see prep schools as more of a luxury, but some middle-of-the-road pupils might feel overlooked in mixed-ability classes of large numbers.

Schools with 11+ entries are generally more accessible to state school pupils, who want to naturally make the transition after Year 6. Some very academic secondary schools, such as City of London School for Boys, take almost half of their 11+ entrants from the state sector; City also offers bursaries to 10% of its Year 7 intake, and have aspirations to grow this number over the coming decade.

Many parents are attracted by the extra-curricular opportunities on offer and there is a strong argument that this is the most formative stage of your child’s development, as they adapt to their developing independence and move through puberty. On the other hand, some pupils may prefer to move at Sixth Form in order to have a fresh start, broaden their horizons, or increase their chances of getting into a top university; a lot will also be dependent on the quality of the state schools close to you.

Finally, remember quality over quantity when making applications; a scattergun approach may seem a good idea, but in reality the most important thing is making sure you choose the right school for your child’s needs, interests and ability.

Please do not hesitate to contact us for further advice.