Surge in bursaries for middle incomes explains sudden rise in boarding school numbers


Education Editor

A rise in bursaries for disadvantaged pupils has fuelled a sudden surge in the number of boarders admitted to independent schools, according to this year’s annual census of private school numbers published today.

Many of the 39 private schools which have set up overseas franchises to educate foreign students in their home countries are ploughing the money they raise from them into providing cash reductions for poorer students.

Barnaby Lenon, a former head of Harrow and now chairman of the Independent Schools Council, said there had been a drift away from providing scholarships to bright children to bursaries for those less well off.

“Potentially, it seemed to some to be a waste giving large fee reductions to parents who were well off and could afford fees,” he said. “Significantly, there are also a large number of middle to low income earners who would like to send their children to private schools if they could afford it.”

The figures show that around eight per cent of private school pupils are now on bursaries - around 40,000 - and the amount of relief provided has risen by 5.6 per cent (£20 million).

Overall, the number of boarders has risen from 66,766 to 68,453, while at the same time the number of overseas boarders has fallen from just over 28,000 to 23,000, possibly as a result of the overseas franchises.

The long-term trend shows that after years of decline between 1987 and 2009, the number of boarders has remained steady and is now even increasing.

A second reason for the rise in disadvantaged pupils could be that independent schools want to remain on the right side of the Charities Commission by fulfilling their founders’ pledge to provide education for the poor.

Heads also said boarding had risen as a result of so many families now having “busy lives” where both parents worked. In addition, they welcomed the extracurricular activities in terms of sports and clubs that boarding schools provided.

Richard Harman, head of Uppingham School, said boarding was “very different” from a few decades ago when it was the butt of jokes stereotyping it with images of cold shoulders. “Boarding is in a very modern environment nowadays,” he added.

Overall, a year-on-year comparison of those schools which submitted returns both this and last year shows numbers have remained roughly the same at just over 500,000, with a rise in the number of prep schools (from 146,214 to 147,080) and a fall in the numbers attending all through mixed age schools (from 242,909 to 241,883. Boys-only schools are holding up in terms of recruitment while the numbers attending girls’ schools has slightly fallen. The census figures show an overall rise of around 3,000 with more schools completing the survey.

“The number of pupils at boys’ schools has risen by 0.5 per cent, it has remained stable at co-ed schools while at girls’ schools there has been a small drop of 0.4 per cent,” says the report.

The independent sector remains at its strongest in London and the South East where pupil numbers have risen by one per cent and 0.5 per cent respectively. In contrast, pupil numbers have declined in the rest of the country, going down by 1.6 per cent in the East Midlands and one per cent in the North.

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