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How to get your children in private education for less

PUBLISHED: 17:26 29 April 2014 | UPDATED: 12:37 30 April 2014

Christ's Hospital School, Sussex (Photo Toby Phillips)

Christ's Hospital School, Sussex (Photo Toby Phillips)

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Private education doesn’t have to break the bank. Here, we offer some advice on getting your children there for less, but be warned – they’ll need to be super-bright...

As the recession lingers on, parental incomes plummet and school fees continue their inexorable upward course, more and more families are worried that private education is getting beyond their grasp.

But help may be at hand. Most good independent schools now offer scholarships (often worth very little) and bursaries (potentially worth a lot) to attract talented pupils or assist those who are financially disadvantaged. And with the Charity Commission insisting that independent schools do more to justify their charitable status, bursaries are more plentiful than they were, though highly competitive.

Around 33 per cent of pupils at UK independent schools receive financial assistance, but it takes determination and hard work on the part of the parents, and exceptional abilities on the part of the child, to have a good chance of securing help.

The options available

So what is the difference between a scholarship and a bursary? Well, let’s start with scholarships. These are usually awarded on merit, through some form of open competition, and may be offered for academic excellence or exceptional talent in art, craft, design and technology, drama, music, sport or IT. Some schools award academic scholarships to those who do best in their entrance tests; others have a separate scholarship exam and most conduct special scholarship interviews.

Bursaries are awarded on proven financial need and through a form of means-testing, but your child will still have to show academic ability. If you apply for a bursary, be prepared to fill in lengthy forms and provide evidence of need. Schools take into account not only income but pensions, investments, the value of your property, rent or mortgage paid, as well as assets and liabilities.

It’s best to do your initial research online. Instead of ploughing through a list of all the independent schools in the country, visit the website for Isbi (Independent Schools of the British Isles: isbi.com) and click on the ‘scholarships and bursaries’ search button.

As well as specific school bursaries, some families are able to benefit from scholarships and bursaries from national or local charities and organisations, particularly if a child has been the victim of tragedy or trauma and is subject to serious social deprivation. The full list is available in the Educational Grants Directory, published annually by the Directory of Social Change. The Educational Trusts’ Forum also offers information about a wide range of organisations that provide grants.

Bucking the trend

There are, of course, always schools that buck the trend, and Christ’s Hospital School in Horsham, West Sussex, is the only independent school in the country where a staggering 82 per cent of its pupils are on means-tested bursaries.

“We’re a school like no other,” says its headmaster, John Franklin. “We were founded in 1552 to take boys and girls off the streets of London, and we’ve been a boarding school ever since. We’ve developed a substantial endowment over the last 460 years and continue to maintain our charitable mission, which is to give as many needy and capable children as possible the opportunity of a full boarding education.

“When I joined the school seven years ago, only three per cent of our children paid boarding fees. However, with the onset of the credit crunch, we decided to take in a limited number of fee-paying children [the full fee is £28,000 a year].”

The school accepts pupils at 11+, 13+ and the lower sixth form, and competition for places and bursaries is intense. “We get five or six times as many applications as we have places to offer, so we have a comprehensive selection process,” says Mr Franklin.

“We undertake an initial screening in November, when candidates sit tests in English, maths and non-verbal reasoning. At this stage, we reduce the 500-600 applications to about 250, and then invite them back for two days of further academic testing and three rounds of interviews.

“The applicants are also tested for their potential in music, art and sport, and are set a range of carefully constructed social-skills exercises designed to see how they interact with other children. We then offer a place and tailor fees according to financial circumstances.”

The school introduced scholarships just four years ago. “We offer about ten scholarships (academic, all-rounder, arts, music and sport) at 11+ and 13+, plus a further dozen at sixth form entry, for those who have done particularly well in their assessments,” says Mr Franklin.

“The maximum scholarship we offer is 20 per cent remission of fees, which is an additional reduction in costs to parents. In light of the significant bursarial support we’re able to give, we see the scholarships more as a means of recognising talent than trying to attract children to the school.”

Education for all

A school that offers more conventional financial assistance is the Royal Grammar School in Guildford, Surrey, a 900-strong boys’ independent founded in 1509, where they offer bursaries and scholarships at 11+ and 13+.

“Most of our bursaries are concentrated towards the 11+ age bracket and range from 10-100 per cent of the fee, based on financial need,” says the headmaster, Dr Jon Cox. “The 100 per cent bursaries cover the cost of uniforms, stationery, educational trips and transport, as well as academic fees, and parents should apply for those before their child sits the entrance exam.

“In addition, we offer one King Scholarship at 11+ and 13+, amounting to 20 per cent of the fees, a number of scholarships at 10-15 per cent, plus music, arts, sports and honorary scholarships. We begin by inviting the top 30 or so boys from the entrance exam to sit the 11+ scholarship exam and undertake an interview. It’s only after I’ve chosen the pupils, based on academic excellence, that we look at who needs a bursary. Sadly, we have more bursary applications than we can cater for, though our foundation is always raising funds specifically for this purpose.”

For the little ones

Fewer scholarships are available at preparatory schools, though Wellesley House, a co-educational boarding prep school for children aged between seven and 13 in Broadstairs, Kent, offers incoming academic and sports scholarships and, like others, prepares pupils for scholarships to their chosen senior schools.

“We differ from many schools because we don’t offer a scholarship unless a pupil needs a bursary,” says the headmaster, Simon O’Malley. “So our scholarships, which amount to a third of the fees, are means-tested and only available to children whose parents can’t afford the fees.

“For new pupils, we have an annual scholarship day at the end of the Lent term for children aged between seven and ten. We’re looking for high-achievers for academic, music or sports scholarships [they currently have two tennis scholars] and they sit written exams in maths, English and verbal and non-verbal reasoning. Afterwards, they have an interview with me.

“For scholarships to senior schools, our approach is that you choose the school that is best suited to the child, and, if appropriate, apply for a scholarship. Our pupils achieved a record 16 scholarships last year covering art, drama, music, academic and all-rounder awards.”

The scholarship money is awarded by the next school and then, if further support is required, parents go through the bursarial route.

Encouraging excellence

So it seems the days have gone when the young James Bond could hope for Etonian generosity because his parents were dead – these days he’d have to pass a scholarship exam, or demonstrate high ability in music, sport or the arts.

“Recognising and encouraging excellence is key to the success of the independent sector, and bursaries and scholarships are an important part of providing the public benefit requirement of schools’ charitable status,” says Mr O’Malley. “I hope parents will feel able to approach schools directly and find out exactly what is available.”


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What do you think? Are schools doing enough to encourage children from poorer backgrounds to apply? E-mail us at aplus@archantlife.co.uk.

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6 top tips for securing a scholarship

Don’t bank on brains

Your child may be brilliant, but these days mere brightness doesn’t guarantee a financial return. Fifty years ago, the boys and girls who did best in their entrance exams got the most money off their fees. Nowadays, at least where bursaries are concerned, the emphasis is towards subsidising financially-strapped students rather than rewarding academically gifted ones. Meanwhile, scholarship values have largely plummeted from 50 to 10 per cent of fees and, at some schools, they are becoming just honorary (in other words, you get a pat on the back and no money).

What’s your line?

If you or your spouse is an actor or doctor, work in textiles or the motor industry, or 
were born within the City of London or Scotland, you may find you are eligible for help with school fees from one of the organisations under the umbrella of the Educational Trusts’ Forum, based in Cobham in Surrey, whose advice line is open every weekday from 9am to 11am on 01932 865619 (see educationaltrusts-grants.org).

You need your country

The Armed Forces offer annual sponsorship in the sixth form and twice as much at college, in return for at least three years’ service post-education. For more information on the options available, contact Army Careers (0845 606 8068; armyjobs.mod.uk/education); RAF Careers (0845 605 5555; raf.mod.uk/altitude); or Royal Navy Careers (0845 607 5555; royalnavy.mod.uk/careers/how-to-join/funding-and-scholarships).

Be prepared to bargain

You are at increasing liberty to ask private schools if they can see their way to a bit of a discount. If, say, your child has a particular talent and two or three schools are interested in offering a scholarship, it is worth asking one school if it can match what its rival is offering. Having concentrated on academic performance for so long, schools are now starting to recognise that having a renowned sports or arts department can be a terrific marketing asset.

Don’t give up

If you don’t get a bursary or similar deal when your child is 11 or 12, try again when they’re 14 or 15. Competition for sixth form scholarships isn’t as fierce as in the younger age range. The secret, at all ages, is to apply a year before the proposed entry date.

Swim for it

A surprisingly large number of schools offer swimming scholarships. For example, GB diving champion Tom Daley went to Plymouth College in Devon after being bullied at his previous (state) school.

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