What Exactly is a Bursary? Can it Help You Find the Right School for Your Child?

The false dichotomy between fee paying and state schools is a modern and unhelpful divide. For nearly 80 years both have been part of the educational landscape and before that, the most common type of school over the centuries is one where some pupils pay fees and some are supported by the philanthropy of others. We have got caught up in a narrative of privilege and private provision, where too many people think their local independent school is not for them. Yet the real question parents should ask is whether the school is right for their child and then to explore how that might be made possible. The answer to this question for those whose income cannot afford fees is to research what bursary provision the school has to offer you and how to apply to access it.

Following their tradition of charitable education and being as inclusive as possible, for those who live in the local area, many independent schools have bursary provision and for some it funds a significant fraction of the pupils. This allows them to pay some or even all of the fees for your child to attend the school. The number of bursaries available and the systems for a particular school will differ but there are some general pointers to share. Schools will have the detail in their websites.

In most cases a bursary is a means-tested scholarship. The “scholarship” part means the first hurdle to being eligible for a bursary will be to do well in the entrance process for that school. This is likely to involve some entrance tests but will also involve an interview. Schools will be looking for potential, not the finished article, as after all they are about to educate your child. They don’t expect that to have been done already. The tests will be looking at aptitude and thinking skills, not prior knowledge. It is how well you can learn, not what you have learned, that matters and this is what schools will be looking for. If in doubt, have a go rather than rule yourself out because you think everyone else is better prepared. It is worth looking at a past test to see what it looks like, but it is not a question of revising facts.

The interview will also probe potential and is very likely to look for character traits – are you curious, do you have empathy with others, can you commit and see things through? Schools know they are interviewing young children and will ask questions in the right context. There are no trick questions and the best advice is to speak and be yourself. They just want to see that spark of a joy of learning and someone who will add to school life through their personality. They will also be trying to select pupils who, when they join the adult world after school, will give back and add real value to society through the education they have had.

Once eligible for a bursary, how much you get is usually “means tested” on your income. Some will get all the fees paid and some will get part of them paid. These assessments use information that will be to hand from tax forms or pay slips or benefit statements, nothing you will have to find specially. It may be the school does this assessment itself or they might use an external agency. It is likely they will meet with you as parents. Again, being honest with the school about what you can and can’t afford is best. If your income rises or falls the bursary will mirror that, usually assessed every year.

Many applying for bursaries worry about fitting in at the school, imagining it is is not for people like them. All I can do is reassure you that if you are awarded a bursary, the school is absolutely for people like you. The school will handle ensuring that all pupils thrive and that it works for you. They know that people come from many different backgrounds and that this mixing is a real strength of a diverse school.

At Bolton School, bursaries really matter to us and the school community they produce is central to our ethos and purpose as a school. We have been involved in substantial bursary philanthropy for three decades and have recently launched a separate charity called the Bolton School Bursary Foundation to take that work to its next stage. One in five pupils in our Senior Schools have a bursary; 7% have a full bursary, which is larger than the free school meal figure in most grammar schools. We really are widely inclusive. By 2030 one in three pupils will have some funding support.

So, don’t rule yourself out. If you think your child might thrive in the local independent school have a close look at the bursary scheme. It might be a life changing choice.

About Philip Britton

Philip Britton is the Head of Foundation of Bolton School. He was brought up on Tyneside, took a first in physics at Oxford and did teacher training at Cambridge. He worked as physics teacher, Head of Physics and Deputy Head at Leeds Grammar School before moving to Bolton in 2008. In 2010 he was awarded an MBE for services to physics and is a Fellow of the Institute of Physics where he has been much involved in physics education, encouraging teachers to encourage the next generation of physicists. Follow at X: @Philip_Britton | View X/Twitter archive | Listen at: Exploring Bolton School | Social Mobility, Leadership & Future School Thinking | Strategic School Leadership with Philip Britton | Strategic School Leadership with Philip Britton