Mum, can I go to Eton please?

Independent schools are opening up more of their bursaries to families in need, says Persephone Ludd
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The Independent Online

Billy Bunter did the independent schools no favours. The greedy boy who gets more than his share of the buns is an increasingly unattractive concept in these day of meritocracy.

Billy Bunter did the independent schools no favours. The greedy boy who gets more than his share of the buns is an increasingly unattractive concept in these day of meritocracy.

The independent sector is showing its willingness to share out the cake - or sections of it - by switching from scholarships to bursaries or means-tested awards.

Figures for 2001 show that in that year, assisted fees totalled £215m, compared with just £63m in 1991. In 2001, 51 per cent of this figure consisted of bursaries; 42 per cent did in 1991. Whether this trend is continuing will be seen when new figures are published by the Independent Schools Council shortly.

"We are encouraging schools to move towards bursaries or means-tested scholarships," says Mike Sant, general secretary of the Independent Schools' Bursars Association. "It clearly is the way forward in widening access. A typical solution is £500 a term as a scholarship and anything above that to be means-tested."

According to Martin Stephen, High Master of St Paul's in London, and a former chairman of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference (HMC), "We live in a society which increasingly favours meritocracy and the independent sector is consumer reactive. We are moving towards a situation where it really is worth having a go, even if you cannot pay."

Ten years ago, as head of Manchester Grammar, Stephen launched the Foundation Bursary Appeal, which raised £10m and today provides assistance to 300 boys at the school. Today Stephen is working on a scheme whereby parents will be able to ring into a central number and be given information about bursaries available at leading public and private schools in London.

Last year Graham Able, Master of Dulwich College, called for the maximum of 50 per cent off the fees for scholarships to be reduced. Eton decided two years ago to reduce the value (but not the number) of non-means-tested scholarships and to concentrate further on means-tested bursaries. "Here, 'bursary' means fee assistance for boys without scholarships, or supplements to scholarships," says Eton's bursar, Andrew Wynn. "Eton's academic and music scholarships have been reduced from 50 per cent of the fee to 25 per cent as from this year. However, they can (as has always been the case) be supplemented up to full-fee remission according to need."

Eton awards a range of scholarships for academic or musical excellence, including various schemes for boys from state schools. There are also 174 boys without scholarships but with bursaries who have been helped financially to come to Eton, or to stay at Eton if their parents have hit hard times.

"We make it a rule to ensure that no one awarded a scholarship is prevented from taking it up for financial reasons. For boys without scholarships, bursary funds are not limitless and depend on thorough financial assessment, but we try to help deserving cases if we possibly can," says Wynn.

Rugby School reduced its scholarships to 10 per cent of fees in September this year, but further means-tested bursaries, which cover as much as 100 per cent of fees, are available for particularly able pupils or existing pupils who are in financial difficulties.

In 2002/3, 35 per cent of pupils received fee concessions or means-tested augmentation or bursary. As well as the Foundationerships for day pupils, Rugby now also offers three Arnold Foundations, named after its founder, and to be awarded to a boy or girl who would not otherwise be able to afford to go to the school and who would benefit significantly from the opportunity. These awards can be up to 100 per cent of the costs, including extras. There are also music, sport, art and drama scholarships.

Means-testing means different things at different establishments. At some schools, a home visit is mandatory but at others paper proof of salary and assets may be enough.

Traditionally, girls' schools have been the poor relations of boys' where scholarships and bursaries are concerned. "Unlike many of the older boys' boarding schools, schools like ours, which are derived from direct grant schools, do not have huge funds available," says Sue Fishburn, head teacher of Leeds Girls' High School. "It is to be hoped that as time goes on, more successful women will be generous to their old school in the way that old boys have been."