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Bursaries: a parents’ guide

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Bursaries: a parents' guide. How to get fee assistance for a private school education.

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Small class sizes, great pastoral care, exciting extracurriculars, excellent exam results... It's understandable to want to give your child all the benefits of a private school education. If you are concerned about paying the fees, there are support options available to you and your family. Many fee-paying private schools (also known as independent schools) offer financial assistance to allow children from all backgrounds access to a top quality education.

How much does private school cost?

The cost of an independent education in the UK varies considerably from school to school. The amount a school charges will depend on which type of school it is, the region it is located in, and the reputation of the school. Schools in London and the South East, and schools with boarding facilities, tend to be among the most expensive.

As a general guide, private day schools charge between £4,000–£8,000 per term at senior school level (secondary education, age 11–16), and more in the sixth form. Boarding school fees are more expensive – often in the region of £10,000 per term. So, a private senior education will cost from £12,000 per year for day schools, and from £30,000 per year for boarding.

What is a bursary?

A bursary is a grant awarded to a child who meets the academic standards set by a selective school, but whose family would not otherwise be able to afford the school fees.

Although parents may not be aware that it is possible to get help with school fees, bursaries are more common than you might think. Many private schools are committed to ensuring that pupils from a wide range of economic backgrounds are able to access an education at their school. These schools believe in the importance of having a pupil population that is representative of society as a whole, and giving all children the opportunity to fulfil their potential.

According to the Independent Schools Council (ISC), which represents over 1,300 of the best-ranked UK and international schools, a total of £464 million per year is currently offered in fee assistance in the form of bursaries and scholarships. At ISC schools, one third of pupils receive some form of fee assistance, and about 6,000 pupils pay no fees at all.

At most schools, fee assistance is only available to children who would otherwise be offered a school place. To decide whether to offer a child a place, the school normally takes into account admissions criteria such as:

  • Their performance in the entrance exam and interview (selective schools)

  • Whether the school is a good fit for the child's educational needs

  • How close they live to the school

  • Occasionally, whether they have a sibling already at the school

The bursary assessment process happens at the same time as the school admissions process, and the outcome of one will impact the other. Schools are most likely to offer bursaries to children who meet or excel beyond the admissions criteria. Conversely, a child may be offered a school place on the basis of the admissions criteria, but then have to decline the place because they do not qualify for the amount of bursary support they would need to attend the school.

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Types of financial assistance for school fees

Means-tested bursaries

Means-tested bursaries are the main type of support you can get for paying school fees. The amount of financial assistance you can be given is decided based on your family's income and financial assets. Bursaries are usually available on a sliding scale, which means that you will qualify for a percentage of the school fees to be discounted depending on your income. At many schools, families with the lowest incomes will qualify for a 100% discount on school fees.

On top of tuition fees, some schools will waive or discount additional fees for bursary applicants, such as the registration fee (typically a non-refundable charge of £100-300) or school deposit (a refundable deposit usually equal to one term's fees that is returned to the family after the child leaves the school).

Some schools also have a fund which contributes to the cost of financial extras such as uniform, lunches, books, equipment and trips. This is sometimes referred to as a 110% bursary or an assisted place.

Bursaries are reassessed each year to check that your family still needs it. If your financial circumstances change this may impact the amount of assistance you qualify for.

Hardship funds

Some independent schools offer hardship funds in addition to bursaries. While bursaries are applied for when children first register with the school, hardship funds are for pupils whose financial circumstances change while they are already at the school. They are usually intended to offer help with paying school fees so that a child's education does not have to be disrupted due to an unexpected change in their family's income. This could be for reasons such as a parent's redundancy, illness or bereavement.

Scholarships

Scholarships are a type of award offered to pupils who are particularly strong academically or in another area, such as art, drama, music or sport. At some schools, scholarships may involve a financial award, whereas at others they are purely about the honour and prestige of being recognised as a top scholar.

If a scholarship does include a financial award, it is usually small (up to 10% of fees for most schools, with 50% a rare exception) or intended to cover specific costs related to your child's area of scholarship, such as funding musical instrument lessons or sports coaching. Some schools are moving away from financial award scholarships altogether so that they can put more funding towards means-tested bursaries.

What's the difference between a scholarship and a bursary?

Unlike bursaries, scholarships are not means tested. The decision to award your child a scholarship does not depend on your family's income – instead, it depends on your child's performance in their area of expertise. At many selective private schools, your child will be automatically considered for an academic scholarship if they meet a certain score threshold in the entrance exam. For music, visual arts, dance, drama or sports scholarships, your child will have to apply separately and go through an application process. This may include submitting a portfolio and attending an audition or interview with a subject specialist.

At most schools, your child can be considered for both a scholarship and a bursary at the same time – they are treated separately and the application process for one does not affect the other. However, at most schools, children cannot apply for more than one scholarship at a time.

There are some similarities between bursaries and scholarships. Firstly, the application process takes place at the same time in the school year. For both bursaries and scholarships you will likely need to apply shortly after registering with the school – during the autumn term of your child's Year 6 if you are registering them for Year 7 entry.

And, just like bursaries, your child's eligibility for a scholarship is likely to be reassessed yearly (or even termly at some schools). Your child will need to continually demonstrate role model behaviour and actively participate in their area of expertise to keep their scholarship for the duration of their time at the school.

How to apply for a bursary for your child’s education

To start the process, you will need to fill in an application form to give an outline of your family's financial circumstances and why you believe your child would benefit from a bursary. This is usually done at the point of applying to your chosen schools. Some schools have a box you can tick on the school registration form to request a separate bursary application form. Others will have a bursary application form available on their website, or will require you to contact the bursar to request one.

Once you have submitted your initial bursary application form, some schools will pass your application on to a third party company to handle all or part of the process. Other schools have a senior staff member to conduct the assessment themselves. Either way, the bursary application is handled sensitively and any information you submit will be treated as strictly confidential.

How are bursaries assessed?

The bursary assessment process usually consists of two stages. When you first apply, the school will look at a brief overview of your family's financial circumstances based on the evidence you provide on the application form. At the second stage they will conduct a deeper investigation, which may include further supporting evidence, conducting credit checks, and visiting you at home.

Parents or guardians applying for a bursary should be prepared to have their finances examined in detail and submit plenty of documentation. Usually, the school will calculate your relevant income to determine whether you qualify for a bursary. This is your gross household income minus £2,000–£3,000 per dependent child.

As well as relevant income, schools will consider your wider circumstances, assets and expenditure. For example, families are unlikely to qualify for a bursary if:

  • They own more than one property

  • They have a large house in an expensive area and choose not to downsize

  • They could release money from savings or investments to cover school fees

  • The child's grandparents could contribute to school fees

  • They spend a lot of money on holidays, new cars, or home improvements

What documents will I need to submit?

You are likely to be asked for:

  • Proof of identity and address

  • 12 months of bank statements for all accounts, including savings and ISAs

  • Details of all investments, assets and property

  • Evidence of combined household income through payslips, P60s, and company accounts

  • Evidence of expenses, including mortgage statements or rental agreements

Divorced parents will need to provide their own financial information.

How much do I need to earn to qualify for a bursary?

The means-testing approach varies between schools. Some schools do not have specific limits and treat applications on a case-by-case basis. Other schools have set income thresholds below which they can offer a bursary. For example, Surbiton High School sets an upper limit of £70,000 combined income. According to the FT, King Edward's School in Birmingham has an upper limit of £72,000 for total parental relevant income and £500,000 for gross assets.

Some schools publish their means testing criteria on their website or in their bursary policies, and some even include a bursary calculator to give you an idea of how much you may qualify for. Other schools are less transparent, but you can request more information when you apply.

The upper limit to getting support with school fees is higher than you might think. As a general guide:

  • Families with a gross income of over £90,000 are very unlikely to qualify for a bursary at any school

  • On an income of £70,000, you may qualify for a small discount of fees at some schools

  • A family with a relevant income of under £20,000 is likely to qualify for a 100% bursary

Bursary home visit

After reviewing your documents and if the bursar (normally the financial director of the school) decides to proceed with your application, they will likely arrange a home visit or Zoom call with you. This may happen at relatively short notice, but it is nothing to be daunted by and they will do their best to put you at ease.

This step is intended for the bursar to meet you, learn more about your circumstances, seek any clarifications they need about your application, and try to build as balanced a picture as possible of your financial needs. They will let you know beforehand if they need you to prepare any additional documents for the visit.

Bursary timeline

A timeline for the bursary application process

How to find out what bursaries are on offer

I've chosen a school

If you already have a school or schools in mind for your child, the best way to find out the details of any financial assistance on offer is to check their individual websites. The application process and amount of support available varies a lot from school to school, even within the same area.

If the school website is vague, we recommend downloading or requesting their admissions, fees and/or bursary policies, as these documents often include more detailed information. This is also a good opportunity to check their fee policy to find out what exactly is covered by the school fees, any additional charges you would have to pay (application fee, deposit, etc.) and whether these are covered by fee assistance.

Most importantly, we always encourage enquiring with the school directly for advice. Many independent schools struggle to get applications from low-income families for whom their bursaries are intended – sometimes due to parents not knowing that bursaries are an option or parents finding the bursary application process too overwhelming – and will be glad to assist you through the process. Most schools provide a direct email address or telephone number for their bursar or admissions department on their website.

I haven't chosen a school

If you haven't yet got a specific school in mind for your child, a good place to start is the Independent Schools Council website, which allows you to search 1,399 top private schools. You can refine your search by ticking a box to include schools that offer scholarships and bursaries only.

If your child will be attending school in London, the London Fee Assistance Consortium is another helpful way to find independent schools that offer free or subsidised places.

Lastly, educational-grants.org gives a list of trusts which offer financial help with school fees depending on factors such as your income, occupation, birthplace, or religion.


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