Are scholarships and bursaries the solution?

With fees on the rise, independent schools must be proactive in attracting students. Are scholarships and bursaries part of the solution – and how are they changing life for schools and families alike? Steve Wright investigates

A combination of factors – a gradual but steady increase in school fees, the impact of the financial climate upon many family finances and an increasing onus on independent schools to help bring about social mobility, allowing the brightest and most gifted pupils from any background to access an elite education – have meant that scholarships and bursaries, now more than ever, have an important role to play in how independent schools select their pupil body.

The UK’s leading independent schools are approaching this area with different strategies, depending on each school’s vision and financial adaptability, but one thing is common to all: they aim to reach out and offer their unique, enriching education to a range of gifted, characterful pupils who, a generation ago, would not even have been able to consider it.

For example, the recent 100 Bursary Campaign at Bolton School – the Times Educational Supplement’s 2019 Independent School of the Year – raised £5m, helping to ensure that one in five senior school pupils now receives fee assistance. On average, these bursaries cover 85% of a student’s fees, while almost 100 other Bolton girls and boys enjoy a completely free place. The school is currently spending £2.5m per annum on means-tested bursaries, giving children from families that earn £20,000 or less the potential to enjoy a free education. 

Those transformative free places will allow us to seriously open up access, and this vision has at its heart our founding principles

Sue Hincks, headmistress of Bolton School Girls’ Division and president of the Girls’ Schools Association (GSA), said: “Our recent fundraising campaign was undertaken in honour of the school’s centenary and aimed to help fulfil the aim of [philanthropist and school founder] Lord Leverhulme, who envisioned an education for every child of ability, irrespective of financial means.

“Support for the campaign came from right across the school community, including old boys and old girls, charitable trusts, current and former parents and other friends of the school as well as from our parents’ associations. Our vision for the future is to be a school that any talented child can access, regardless of their parents’ ability to pay the fees.”

Whilst other school fee assistance schemes have come and gone, Christ’s Hospital has stuck to its charitable aims since it was founded in 1552: financially supporting the education of those in financial, social and other needs, in a caring boarding environment.

Pupils’ fees are assessed according to family income, and selection is determined by a child’s potential to benefit from a Christ’s Hospital education, rather than family finances. “This results in a social and cultural diversity that enriches our school community and offers our pupils unique opportunities as we prepare them for the modern world,” explains school spokesperson Clare Phillips. “The resulting social and cultural mix at Christ’s Hospital is unique in the independent sector. The pupils come from all over the UK and overseas, and from every kind of background.” 

The school’s results are testament to this: 98% of pupils go on to top universities and the majority of A-level grades are at A*–B, with a number of International Baccalaureate (IB) students achieving some of the best scores in the UK. “Of our 662 pupils on means-tested bursaries, 14% pay no fees, and 35% pay less than a tenth of the fees,” Phillips explains. “The school’s pupil profile is one of which its royal founder, Edward VI, would have been proud.”

Enhancing diversity

The expansion of bursary programmes is certainly enhancing the social diversity of independent schools. Elsewhere, Ampleforth College has recently extended its bursaries for high achievers. New head Deirdre Rowe has set out to recruit scholars who will truly contribute to life at the North Yorkshire boarding school, and donations have enabled a new raft of means-tested bursaries.

“Since 1802, Ampleforth has always recruited students of all ability,” Rowe explains. “However, improved A-level and GCSE results and a newly reinforced academic team in disciplines from classics to coding means that gifted students, with the personalities and values to contribute to school life, will now have even more chance to join us here.” 

Rowe is clear that scholarships and bursaries can benefit pupils and schools alike. “Following our exam results in the past few years, and the investment we have made in our own academic offering, bursary students will also act as role models to their fellow students, setting the bar high and encouraging all students to surpass expectations. However, as well as strengthening the academic standard of private schools, bursaries also enable us to create a more diverse environment for all pupils to play music, sport and develop their social skills as part of a thriving school community.”

Founded in 1818, Scotland’s Dollar Academy has always admitted both boys and girls and, over its 200-year history, has provided financial support in a variety of forms. In 2018, the school supported over 70 pupils amounting to a total of over £700,000. Additionally, provision is often made for the supply of uniform, to cover travel to school and for participation in school trips.

Last year we were able to help over 70 children and we would like to do more

Resources across many schools such as Dollar, however, are limited. Each year bursary places are oversubscribed, and the school is keen to help as many children as it can. As such, and in celebration of Dollar’s 2018–19 bicentenary anniversary, the school recently decided to launch a Bicentenary Bursary Fund. In a nod to the ethos and values of the school (‘be kind, work hard and get involved’), the fund will aim to increase access to the school and to support as many children as possible.  

“The Bicentenary Bursary Fund will help us continue to provide an outstanding education to as many as possible, regardless of their parents’ ability to pay the fees,” Rector David Knapman explains. “Last year we were able to help over 70 children and we would like to do more.”

Sharper focus

Woldingham School, established 175 years ago upon principles of intellectual scholarship and social awareness, offers a combination of talent scholarships, means-tested bursaries and free places. Scholarships are typically awarded at 5%–20% reduction in fees. However, in the last five years the contribution towards assisted and free places has taken on a sharper focus as the school looks to cement its place within the local community – and to see all pupils, regardless of circumstance, benefit from membership of a diverse student body.

Bursaries are available for both new pupils and existing families whose circumstances change. In addition to academic performance, Woldingham also considers the child’s potential to benefit from the wider opportunities at the school. And this approach is paying dividends for schools and pupils alike: bursary students are throwing themselves into the wider co-curricular opportunities and taking on positions of leadership, with some elected head girl and/or gaining entry to Oxbridge.

To take one example, five years ago Woldingham introduced an annual award of an 11+ scholarship, at 50% fee reduction, specifically for a girl at a local state-maintained school. “As a Sacred Heart School we emphasise a truly rounded education with particular focus on community, so meaningful scholarships for local girls is critical in reinforcing our roots in our own area,” explains Simon Hopkins, director of finance, resources and operations. “This has proved very popular in the local community and has increased awareness of assisted places across a range of local primary schools.”

For these bursaries to be truly meaningful, says Hopkins, it’s important to assess each one on an individual basis. 

“We take a pragmatic approach whereby each family is assessed and funds are spread as widely as possible. It’s important to us not to turn bursary awards into a sausage machine where awards are a by-product of a cold calculation. We must identify those prospective students where the award is likely to be genuinely transformational.”


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Co-curricular scholarships are awarded in Art, Drama, Music and Sport, and heads of department look for genuine curiosity, originality and joy in their subject. As head of Drama Stacey Williams says: “We see so many students who attend performing arts classes, have taken LAMDA exams and have been in productions – that seems to be part and parcel of many kids’ lives these days. However, for a scholarship there needs to be something other than coached ability – a spark, an originality and a realness in their performances.” 

Simon Hopkins says: “As our development programme grows, it is our intention that this will allow us to award even more genuinely transformative bursaries every year.

“Opening up a Woldingham education to talented girls who, historically, would not have been able to contemplate it is crucial to our long-term vision. Those transformative free places will allow us to seriously open up access, and this vision has at its heart our founding principles. We aim to achieve nothing less than to teach, inspire and enable a generation of women who will change the world.”