Private Schools for Free

Over the last two years, I have completed an MSc looking into the way in which British independent schools are attempting to level the playing the field for children and families in an unequal society. Newspaper headlines and chat show commentators might think it unlikely, but I have spoken with the men and women who lead Britain’s top private schools and I know that they are motivated not only by a determination to play their part, but also to increase their role in supporting those who are most in need. Over recent years, one of the principal means of redistributing privilege has been the introduction of “means-tested bursaries”.

In 2019, I interviewed six headteachers from well-known private schools. I also surveyed twenty more. It will come as no surprise that educators are an altruistic bunch, nor that they fiercely champion the children in their care, but it might not be expected for a top private school head to say that means-tested bursaries are the greatest achievement of his career in schooling.

A society in transformation

All of the other heads with whom I spoke picked up on the theme of offering bursary places to pupils who could not otherwise afford the fees. At one of the schools, which according to the headmaster sees itself as a school with “a national obligation to take the lead,” I heard how land worth £120 million has recently been sold and all of this capital has been put into a trust where the interest will fund “transformational bursaries which will make the best education available to pupils of all backgrounds”. Another, the headmaster of a large, urban boys’ school echoed this sentiment and explained how the governors of his school devote in excess of £2 million per year to bursaries. Some are for 100% remission and some are what he described as “shallow bursaries” for middle-income families who could not afford to pay all of the fees: “I fear a school of just the very rich and the very poor.”

A third head told me how he had spoken with 71 different state school headteachers in the process of establishing a bursary programme and how the ambition of his school to become “needs blind” will take a generation to come to fruition, but this, he stressed was the single most important contribution which his school could make to education: “I’m less convinced by sharing facilities, but my life is about life-changing bursaries … My journey is about trying to give back.”

Elsewhere, a headteacher of an independent school in the Home Counties told me:

“When I look back to how selfish 18 year olds were in the 1990s, I see a real change. The world has changed for the better and heads have changed too; they see their privileged positions and they have a social conscience which was simply not around twenty-five years ago.”

All of the headteachers spoke about the support from the parent body at their schools for programmes which were seen to contribute to society at large. One commented how he felt that the parents at his school did not want their own children to grow up “in a bubble of affluenza”. He went on to describe how the addition of sixth form bursary pupils from a local 11-16 school was of enormous benefit to the existing A level candidates. In his school with an Anglican foundation in the early 1500s, he has been pleased to admit pupils from a school which is “90% Muslim and 90% Asian”. He described the new students as “catalytic” and as “the yeast in the dough” because they brought with them a passion for education and an appreciation of education which was contagious to his existing pupils. I also heard how, in the 1990s, it would have been unimaginable for a state school head to recommend that their 16 year old students progress to an independent school Sixth Form. “These days,” I was told, “every head wants the best for their pupils. The hostility no longer exists.”

A final question about whether these headteachers saw their schools as a power for social and educational equity, brought this resounding commitment to the common good:

“Absolutely! I never doubt it. Every link that we have and every bursary that we give; we do it because it is the right thing to do. I am taken with the idea that we have a chance, perhaps for the first time since the late-Victorians to make a difference. I am a great believer in citizenship.”

The situation in London

At the school where I work, we have established a link with a local 11-16 academy which serves a deprived area of Inner London. This year, four of their students have progressed to our Sixth Form. They are being individually-mentored by old pupils from their new school, they will receive tailored guidance on university applications, their fees are being paid by other parents at the school and they have been welcomed with open arms. This partnership is appreciated on both sides and we are part of a consortium of 31 London independent schools offering free places to children who perform strongly in the admissions test.

Opportunities for assistance with fees are variously described as bursaries, scholarships, assisted places or sponsored awards. The impact is always the same: families whose children show that they can benefit from an independent education are helped to make that possible.

The two most common types of support remain scholarships and bursaries. Scholarships are merit-based and awarded to those who excel academically or in sport, music, art or drama. Bursaries are means-tested and designed for those who do well in entry examinations but would struggle to pay school fees.

Schools may also provide eligible children with financial support for trips, music lessons and a range of other costs such as lunches, uniforms and sports equipment when needed.

Last year, the Independent Schools Council (ISC) Census showed that a third of pupils attending fee-paying schools benefited from some form of fee assistance. That number is very likely to grow over time as more schools actively work to increase the fee assistance they can offer.

Charlie Fillingham


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All views expressed are those of the individual contributors and do not claim to reflect the wider views of EdGE Thinking. 

© 2020 R.W.AITKEN