The progress of the long-awaited Charities Bill has undoubtedly helped propel the issue of scholarships and bursaries towards the top of the agenda for those independent schools that have no policy on the subject.
For many schools, though, the mission to provide less-advantaged children with a private education has been at the front of their minds for hundreds of years. Loved by the growing number of parents who successfully apply for them, and supported by policy-makers as a way of attracting in a wider range of pupils, the financial handouts given to more than 24 per cent of independent school pupils last year are a major weapon in the drive for inclusion.
Christ's Hospital, in West Sussex, was one of the first schools to offer bursaries when it opened in 1552, and today, the self-styled "charitable boarding school for children from all walks of life" continues to offer help to 97 per cent of its 830 pupils. The remaining 3 per cent get a free uniform.
While 18 per cent of this year's intake will have no fees to pay, the average contribution made by parents is, at £2,600 a year for full boarding facilities, "one of the least expensive in the sector", says marketing officer Carol Blackwell.
Fifty-nine pupils, or 9 per cent, of Wolverhampton Grammar School are now in receipt of means-tested bursaries distributed to families whose income is £30,000 or less. The head, Dr Bernard Trafford, believes schools are being encouraged by the Government to "shout louder about how bursaries work", even though, for many of them, the awards system has been unchanged for many years.
"I'm very proud of the bursaries we offer because I believe that they can make a real difference; particularly to kids coming from the tougher parts of town," he says. "While I don't see scholarships as anything more than a marketing ploy to get the very top achievers into a school, bursaries are a ladder out of deprivation and I only wish we could offer more of them."
Although only a few of Dr Trafford's bursary pupils come from working-class homes, for Latymer Upper School in west London, the proportion of independent school virgins is far larger.
"We're not a posh school," says registrar Catriona Sutherland-Hawes, "and ours is a very diverse mix of children; most of them are from the state sector and many of them are first-generation in terms of private education."
To qualify for a means-tested bursary here, parents have to fill in a very detailed form about their income and circumstances, she says. Needing to remortgage your home in order to pay the fees is not an automatic qualification.
Although the bursary bill for independent schools now approaches a record £300m, the imbalance between supply and demand can cause headaches, according to Jonathan Cook, general secretary of the Independent Schools' Bursars Association.
"Although it might sound intrusive, we believe that home visits to people asking for help are a must - if only to check that there aren't two Mercedes in the garage," he says.
He adds that while bursaries are evidence of the "noble intentions of very many independent schools in encouraging the less well-off," he believes that the logic of awarding scholarships to "often very wealthy parents" is now being brought into question.
Dover College, Kent College, Hurstpierpoint College, Lancing College and Loughborough Grammar School are among many independent schools offering bursaries to the children of armed forces personnel, while a smaller number have this arrangement for children of the clergy. Orphans, children from single-parent families and children with problems at home may also qualify, but for most, evidence of academic ability is a must.
While the system tends to include children gifted in less academic areas - music, art or PE - Tim Hands, head at Portsmouth Grammar School, says the means-tested bursaries given out predominantly by senior schools should be more imaginative.
"The notion of a good all-rounder suggests academic talent, but what we're considering at Portsmouth is the idea of an all-round 'talent bursary', perhaps given to children who bring special qualities."
"We want to give more awards to more parents and that requires new ways of thinking," he adds.Reuse content