How to get bursaries and assisted places for top private schools

How to get bursaries and assisted places for top private schools

The gift of education is one of the most valuable things you can give to your children. However, the cost of sending a child or grandchild to an independent or private (strangely, also known as a “public school”) school has soared well above the rate of inflation, yet the number of UK pupils in private education has never been higher. Why is this?

Part of the answer is that more than £1bn a year of financial assistance is available to parents, enabling one in three students to have their school fees reduced or even waived, according to the FT.

School fees have become a major problem for the middle classes in recent years. The cost of a private education is nearly 50% higher than a decade ago, according to data from the Independent Schools Council (ISC).

Average fees for day pupils are now nearly £4,800 per term, or just over £14,000 a year. Fees are higher in the Southeast and London, where boarding school fees now average more than £13,000 a term — close to £40,000 per year, according to the ISC.

Scholarships and bursaries have become a key factor in affordability, but many parents may not be aware of the level of help available. For instance, at some schools, parents who apply for means-tested support could qualify even if they have a household income of £90,000.

Competition for the brightest children means that an increasing amount of assistance is being provided on a “needs blind” basis to pupils with a flair for particular subjects, such as music and sports.

My Son won a music scholarship and bursary, which covered part of the fees, and a government assisted place scheme, which was later abolished by the Tony Blair government.

The strict application criteria will vary for each school, but typically with a high level of financial disclosure required to obtain means-tested funding.

Schools reject assistance requests from parents who own second homes or expensive properties. If the school senses parents could afford to pay the fees by downsizing their home, or asking grandparents for help, they will say so.

Independent schools need to justify their charitable status, which has encouraged more generosity in the form of scholarships and means-tested bursaries. The ISC says that £800m of the £1bn provided in “fee assistance” last year came directly from the schools themselves.

Over 175,000 ISC students currently enjoy some form of fee reduction, around half of these through means testing. The number of those receiving “free” fully paid places more than 6,000 pupils, an increase of 5 per cent year-on-year.

Parents of children who win a scholarship can often also apply for a bursary — often referred to as an “assisted place”.

In addition to help with school fees, financial help may be granted towards the cost of expensive uniforms, sports equipment, laptops, trips and other travel costs. The vast majority of this kind of financial assistance is directed at UK families, but many parents do not know how to access the increased funding. “Believe it or not, it’s quite a challenge for independent schools to get applications from the families for whom their bursaries are intended — gifted children from low-income families,” says Catherine Stoker, managing director of Independent Education Consultants, which advises parents on choosing the right school. “Scholarships and bursaries are certainly one of the most ‘searched for’ items on our website,” she says. “Parents often call us for advice on how to secure bursaries — it’s a confusing area. Parents who would be eligible often lack the confidence to call their local independent school and inquire about how to apply. Sometimes they don’t know bursaries exist.”

In general, schools will seek to ascertain the “relevant income” — the gross household income less an amount of between £2,000 and £3,000 per dependent child. Having relevant income of £20,000 or less would usually qualify for full fees to be paid, but some schools will provide funding on a sliding scale of up to £90,000.

Despite the fact that sending a child to a private school saves the state money, not everyone is happy that the children of relatively well-off middle class families are benefiting from charity.

The Labour Party pledged to remove the VAT exemption on private school fees, and could go further by scrapping business rates relief which is granted to independent schools owing to their charitable status.

The headmaster of the prestigious Stowe School said middle-class families who could have afforded to pay for private education a generation ago were now being “squeezed out because of affordability”.

Assisted places are usually awarded for a set period when a pupil joins a school at the age of 11, although many schools offer specific bursaries to sixth-form entrants. Last year, £420m was provided in means-tested, as opposed to merit-based, fee assistance for pupils at ISC schools; an increase of nearly £160m since 2011.

Special bursaries are available for pupils whose parents are in the armed forces, Church of England clergy, or who work for independent schools. There can also be favourable terms for second and subsequent siblings attending a school.

As a parent, you will need to do your homework, researching the websites of the schools and applying early. Pupils will normally sit an entrance exam and many parents prepare them for this by taking them to extracurricular classes and cramming schools specialising in helping pupils pass.

Top schools like Westminster School, founded in 1560 and earning its royal charter from Elizabeth I for offering help to 40 poor scholars, donate millions to help poorer children.

Westminster currently allocates £1.4m a year to bursaries and these can pay up to the full fees of £29,709 per year, plus uniform, equipment and other school expenditure.

Its website advises parents: “There are no exact financial criteria for bursaries but in judging a family’s needs, all income, essential expenditure, and all assets in savings, investments and property will be assessed.

Where, for example, a home is considered to be too large, in an expensive area or where excess equity could be released, a family may be expected to downsize or remortgage as necessary to release funds. It is also expected that savings in shares, Isas, other investments and equity in second homes will be released.

The school will then assess what level of bursary (between 10 per cent and 100 per cent of the fees) is needed.” Where parents live can also give children access to financial help as some bursaries were set up to benefit specific communities.

At Harrow School, where Winston Churchill studied, pupils who have lived in London boroughs, including Barnet, Brent, Camden, City of London, Ealing or Hammersmith, for more than two years may be eligible for financial help from the John Lyons Foundation.


The choice of royalty, Eton College, charges boarding fees of more than £42,000pa, but more than one in five pupils receive some form of financial assistance. The school, whose alumni includes countless prime ministers (David Cameron and Boris Johnson), Prince William and Prince Harry, will spend £6.5m this year to support 273 of its 1,300 pupils. The average bursary covers two-thirds of school fees. “We are proud of our bursary and scholarship provision which last year saw 74 boys receiving 100 per cent fee remission and a further 208 boys receiving a range of financial assistance,” says the college.

Eton aims to support one in four pupils in future, and is able to fund this from the school’s own resources and donations from its powerful network of alumni.

The son of a Windsor pharmacist won a scholarship to pay the full boarding fees for his education at Eton. His father said: “Applying for the scholarship was very easy indeed, he told the FT.

The information was readily available on Eton’s website. “At the time, so long as your child was under 10 years of age and had not been to a fee-paying school, you just had to contact Eton and ask to come and sit the scholarship test. “On the day, there were, I think, around 200 or so other children sitting it. It was a week or so before we were notified that they wanted him to come back again. At this follow-up day, there were around 6-10 children called back and they were involved in discussions rather than actual tests.

Our son was offered a junior scholarship a few days later.” The income of both parents was assessed and Eton covered all the school fees. “We supplied a detailed list of our income and expenses and Eton then set a contribution level.” The parents paid “a small contribution each term” of around £750 plus any expenses such as dinners, laundry, and society subscriptions. “Our son got A star and A grades in everything, plus a clutch of school awards and went on to read English at Cambridge.”

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A hedge fund is an official partnership of investors who pool money together to be guided by professional management firms, not unlike a mutual fund.

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