The independent education sector has, especially in the last 12 months, come under increasing scrutiny on the basis of alleged elitism.
The opening gambit for an article in The Conversation in February 2019 states: “Private schools tend to be richly resourced and expensive, so those children lucky enough to attend them normally receive a good education, with academic advantages enhanced by a range of extra-curricular activities. But while this might be great to private pupils these schools pose a serious problem for Britain’s education system and society.”
The article, authored by Francis Green, professor of labour economics and skills development at UCL, goes on to describe private education as “very socially exclusive” and “unfair and unequal”.
In April 2019, the Social Mobility Commission released their State of the Nation report, which says: “Independent schools run the risk of entrenching privilege. They are better resourced than schools in the state sector and they are increasingly financially inaccessible for significant proportions of the population. Those who attend are disproportionately drawn from society’s richest families and benefit from better outcomes in life.”
But the sector is making efforts to address this issue, often through funding such as scholarship and bursary schemes.
Scholarships are typically financial awards presented to students on the basis of outstanding academic or extracurricular performance. This can include exceptional talent in activities such as sport, music and drama.
Bursaries, on the other hand, are means-tested and are awarded solely on the basis of financial circumstances – usually household income.
So how do these awards work, and do they really make a difference?
What are schools offering?
Manchester Grammar School (MGS) is an independent day school for boys, with a 500-year history dating back to King Henry VIII. The school provides means-tested bursaries to one in six of its senior school pupils, amounting to some 200 boys.
Simon Jones, director of development at MGS, says that the charitable foundation of the school to provide education for some of the poorer boys in Manchester is still key to the school’s ethos today. He confirms that 85% of the school’s bursary recipients get a free place, which “covers everything from uniform, to meals and trips”, so that “everyone gets the same access”.
Solihull School also offers bursaries and scholarships covering various areas of performance, including the Silhillian Fund, a bursary programme set up five years ago to combat the rise in school fees that threatened to reduce the number of bursaries available.
We don’t identify bursary students; everyone gets the same access
Lucy Lunt, director of development and alumni relations at Solihull School, says that bursaries from the Silhillian Fund range from 10% to 100%, and “a few get more than 100% to cover school meals and some trips”. The threshold for means-testing at Solihull is £80,000, but Lunt reports that the school “looks at all circumstances individually, as there could be ‘asset-rich’ parents with low income that don’t qualify”.
So what role do scholarships – as opposed to bursaries – play here? Jones argues that scholarships awarded to pupils whose parents can already easily afford the fees aren’t “necessary”. He says coverage of scholarships and bursaries can become muddled, as “people lump them together as the same thing and they’re not”.
But Jones has no problem with academic selection. He describes MGS as an “academic meritocracy” and emphasises that admission to the school is based on academics and “not the ability to pay”.
How have students benefited from these awards?
A student who received the Silhillian Fund alongside a religious studies scholarship at Solihull School says that there would be “no possible way” they could have attended the school without financial aid, and that being exposed to this new environment allowed them a new perspective on independent education.
They told IE: “My misconceptions about private school students have been completely wiped away – I have made many good friends here, friends for life, and I have been able to use my academic talents in a way that pushes me further than I would’ve been anywhere else.”
My misconceptions about private school students have been completely wiped away – I have made many good friends here, friends for life
Faye, a fully funded student from Christ College in Brecon, had both tuition and boarding expenses fully covered for the duration of years 12 and 13, through a combination of an academic scholarship, a bursary and funding from the local authority.
Faye says that due to being in a “long-term foster care plan, attending a school such as Christ College had never even crossed my mind”. However, the school reached out to Faye’s state school, which was in “a particularly low-income area”. Faye credits hearing about Christ College partially to luck, since the school was so proactive in reaching out to lower-income students.
MGS has helped “hundreds” of boys through its bursary scheme, says Jones. He adds that bursaries are not “about having a poster boy” but making a genuine difference to social mobility, and that these efforts are “about pupils, not schools”.
What benefit is there to non-aided students?
Owen Jones, famously outspoken against the private education sector, claims in an article for The Guardian that, “mixing together is good for children from different backgrounds: the evidence suggests that the ‘cultural capital’ of pupils with more privileged, university-educated parents rubs off on poorer peers without their own academic progress suffering.”
But private schools aren’t denying this fact. Simon Jones says that there is “absolutely” an advantage to having a diverse student body, and that those from wealthy backgrounds have “just as much to learn” from bursary students as vice versa. He also says that there isn’t an issue at MGS with students being polarised depending on their fee status.
He comments: “We don’t identify bursary students; everyone gets the same access. The lads don’t notice [the difference] and the staff don’t notice [either].”
Lunt agrees that scholarships and bursaries help the diversity of the school, which benefits all of the students. She told IE: “Solihull is a pretty rich borough, and a lot – not all, but a lot – of our pupils come from very comfortable backgrounds. There’s a Solihull bubble, so it’s important that the school is more diverse.”
If it was open to everyone, I think the whole model of education in this country would have to change
A bursary student at Solihull also pointed out the influence they have had on their fellow students, saying: “I have found many of my peers are eager to learn about experiences I have had.”
Barnaby Lenon, chairman of the Independent Schools Council (ISC), said in his introduction to John Claughton’s recent book ‘Transforming young lives: fundraising for bursaries’: “All independent school leaders want to take pupils from a wide range of backgrounds. In the experience of most, this leads to a happier and more interesting school.”
Claughton himself – once a beneficiary of the Direct Grant scheme and later head of Solihull School and chief master of King Edward’s School, Birmingham – admits in his book, that “independent schools cannot simply blame the times and the politicians. Over time, independent education in general has become more expensive”.
He goes on to say that he doesn’t think “that anyone ever really meant it to be that way” but that “it has happened”. Claughton is hopeful, though, that “there is progress”. He cites ISC census figures that show “a material growth in the area of means-tested bursaries: £24m more was spent on means-tested bursaries in 2019 than in 2018”.
Numbers from the ISC annual census 2019 show that in 2019, a total of 176,633 pupils received help with their fees, representing 34% of all pupils. The value of this help totals over £1bn. The report, however, only includes a survey of the 1,364 schools that are members of the ISC, and so does not include the further 1,0441 schools that are not associated with the body.
1 Figure calculated using BESA figures reporting a total of 2,408 independent schools in the UK
What does the future hold?
There seems to be little to no argument then, that the private sector is keen to expand its access to pupils from all sorts of backgrounds. But there is, of course, an element of practicality to take into account here. When asked about his response to Owen Jones’ view that private education should be abolished, Simon Jones made the point that the issue is “more nuanced than that, it’s not black and white”, and that the private sector won’t be abolished due to that fact that the idea of doing so is “not financially sound”, and would “cost the maintained sector a lot of money”.
Tim Laker, bursar at Lewes Old Grammar School, an independent day school which uses a third-party application process to award means-tested bursaries, says:
“I think [independent education] should be [available to those from lower-earning households], but then again, it depends on the funds you’ve got available to be able to do that. If it was open to everyone,
I think the whole model of education in this country would have to change.”
But there is a desire to do more. Lunt shared her goal to raise £2.5m within the next five years to fund more bursaries at Solihull, and Jones shared that MGS has ongoing fundraising to fill in the financial gap that was left when government funding schemes such as the Direct Grants, which ran from 1945–1976, and the Assisted Places Scheme from 1980–1997, were abolished.
Faye at Christ College sums up the overall feeling well, stating: “I think that it is such a shame and waste of potential that young people’s postcodes continue to be a massive defining factor in their lives.
“Without a doubt I think scholarships and bursaries should be more readily available for talented and hardworking individuals who all deserve the same shot at life as anyone from a wealthier, more privileged background.”
This feature was originally published in our March issue.