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Private Education and How to Pay

You want your little darling(s) to be educated privately - how on earth are you going to afford it?
Family income – sometimes including that of grandparents and other family – is taken into account, as are assets such as value of home and car(s), frequency and value of holidays, even if you have any decent works of art, so keep that famous portrait locked in the attic

You have weighed up the pros and cons, considered all your options and come to a conclusion – you want your little darling(s) to be educated privately.

There remains one teensy-weensy little problem, hardly worth mentioning really – how on earth are you going to afford it?

With private school fees varying from around £3,000 a year (for youngsters) to more than £21,000 for a day pupil and in some cases £35,000 plus per year for boarding, according to The Good Schools Guide, it is hardly surprising that many would-be private school parents are worried about how to pay.

If, though, you are set on the private route, there are ways forward, one of which is putting your child in for a scholarship and/or a bursary.

A scholarship gives some financial help so that a child can attend a school but there are two things to bear in mind. The first is that, unsurprisingly, the schools want something back for their money so not just anyone can have one. They are awarded to pupils who show particular academic, musical or artistic ability, though there are some sports scholarships available – particularly swimming ones (Tom Daley was awarded a scholarship at Plymouth College) – and a few schools offer scholarships to talented chess players (Millfield springs to mind) or to ‘all-rounders’ where someone might show academic ability but also other skills such as drama, music or sports. And there will be expectations that your child will then rise to the occasion and do the school proud. One girl, hoping to reduce her work load, was told, “you’re a scholar, you have to do a certain number of subjects”.

The second important fact is that, these days, many scholarships offer only a small amount off the fees, perhaps 10 per cent or less, which won’t make a huge dent in many thousands. However, there are bursaries available to top up scholarships and the good news is that many of these are available for anyone to apply for, not just the super-clever/sporty with their scholarships but ordinary mortals too – as long as they satisfy basic entry requirements, which generally means the Common Entrance exam or school’s own entrance exam.

The rise in bursaries came about after the Charities Act of 2006. Most independent schools are charities and so must show that they provide sufficient ‘public benefit’ to justify the tax relief that accompanies their charitable status and the act required them to do so, and many responded by paying some or all of the fees of less well-off pupils.

“A few years ago the Charities Commission started putting pressure on independent schools to put more money into bursaries,” says financial expert Mark Wilson. “So, while there are still scholarships which are awarded however rich a family is, they tend to be symbolic and scholarship money has been recycled into bursaries. The commission’s pressure has eased off now but the practice remains.”

These bursaries can be as much as full fees and may also provide help with uniform, equipment and “compulsory school expenditures” as one such institution, Westminster School in London, put it. Several of the top independent schools have drawn up radical plans to increase the number of pupils from poorer backgrounds. Writing in The New Statesman earlier this year, Tony Little, head of Eton College, surely the most prestigious independent school of all, challenged his sector to publish targets for increasing means-tested benefits. Putting his money where his mouth is, he said that in the last academic year (2013-14), there were 263 boys at Eton receiving means-tested financial assistance averaging 60 per cent off the fees, with 63 paying nothing and he was planning to raise that to 320 with 70 paying nothing. His “ultimate goal”, he said, was to “take all suitable candidates irrespective of their family’s financial situation”.

Eton, of course, is a wealthy school, and can afford a decent bursary pot while other schools may struggle to do so and you will need to check with individual institutions. Some of them will say on their websites, but others will expect you to call. Don’t be shy about doing so, schools receive these sort of enquiries all the time. There are even some schools that offer bursaries from Reception class onwards though this is rare. The Good Schools Guide has a scholarships and bursaries consultancy service but it does cost around £120, depending on what advice you need.

Some places offer support for children who fall into specific categories, such as the offspring of clergy, and several trusts give out grants to, for instance, actors (Actors Charitable Trust), those who have worked in the rag trade (Fashion and Textile Children’s Trust), or children of Merchant Seafarers (The Royal Merchant Navy School Foundation). The Educational Trusts Forum is a great source of information here.

You will note, though, that, while scholarships are awarded to children regardless of family circumstances, bursaries are means-tested and this testing is pretty rigorous and usually repeated annually to ensure the help is still needed. Family income – sometimes including that of grandparents and other family – is taken into account, as are assets such as value of home and car(s), frequency and value of holidays, even if you have any decent works of art, so keep that famous portrait locked in the attic. Both parents are expected to be working too unless there are pressing reasons why they can’t. This can feel intrusive, but schools need to ensure the money is going to the right people. “Sometimes,” says one teacher, “you look at a child and think ‘I know they are on a bursary, but I think the grandparents are paying’.”

If your child receives a bursary will they feel out of place, the pauper among the rich kids? First, bear in mind that the Independent Schools Council estimated that in 2013, a third of pupils in independent schools received some form of remission on their fees. Also, schools are discreet about who is in receipt of support so, in theory, few people know. However, Mark Wilson says that the problems can arise when a family is struggling to find even the proportion of fees they are left to pay. “If families are finding it hard to pay say 25 per cent of the fees they may not have the money for extras like school trips.”

Children are aware of differences too. “When my sister started at our school (Trent College, Nottingham), her friends used to comment on how small our house was,” says 14-year-old Peter. “Then she went to a state sixth form college and our house was one of the biggest ones of her friends there.”

So it just shows you, everyone is different and learning to accept that is part of learning to get on in the world, and many would argue that an independent school education is certainly a way to get on.

- Stella Wiseman