Top private schools 'spend less on places for poor'

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The richest and most prestigious private schools are more likely to spend less money on providing places for poor children, research suggests today.

More than a quarter of fee-paying schools offer less than 5% of their total income in scholarships and bursaries, according to a study commissioned by the Sutton Trust.

One in eight allocate less than 3% of their total income for this purpose.

The study, conducted by researchers at Staffordshire University's Institute for Education Policy Research analysed the websites and financial accounts of 348 private schools for 2008.

The findings show that on average, private schools devoted 7.8% of their total incomes in 2008 to providing bursaries and scholarships to pupils from poorer families who cannot afford the fees.

But the most prestigious schools - those that ranked between one and 70 in a league table published by The Times, spend 4.3% of their total income on financial aid for poorer youngsters, the study says.

In comparison, schools that were ranked between 211 and 280 set aside more money - some 7.2% of their income, for bursaries and scholarships.

The report says: "A plausible explanation of this is that schools that are higher up the ranking have more market power and can attract not only the number of students they want but also the ability of students they want without having to offer as high a level of fee remissions."

The study did find that schools that charged higher tuition fees set aside more money for financial aid.

But, schools with higher incomes spend less money on bursaries alone, the report shows.

Schools which set aside 1-2% of their total income to bursaries have an average income of £10.4 million, while those that give over 6-8% have an average income of £8.2 million.

The report notes that schools which have big financial reserves, and receive large amounts of donations are able to put more money into funding scholarships and bursaries.

It concludes that in reality, these schools are estimated to offer lower levels of financial aid for bursaries and scholarships.

Sir Peter Lampl, chairman of the Sutton Trust said: "The fact that the fee-paying sector is devoting a greater share of its income to fee remissions - and bursaries in particular - is to be welcomed. However, half of the fee remissions still go to scholarships which are not means-tested.

"Progress is also unevenly spread throughout the sector. It is concerning, for example, that the most prestigious private schools - which offer their pupils exceptional life chances - appear, on average, to be doing less to widen access than their lower-attaining counterparts.

"While partnership and community work are important components of public benefit, bursary provision is perhaps the most effective way independent schools can boost social mobility."

Under new rules, private schools must prove they benefit children who cannot afford their fees in order to keep their charitable status and the tax breaks that come with it.

Last year, two prep schools failed to meet the "public benefit test" after the Charity Commission ruled they were not providing enough subsidised places.

The Commission announced last month that the two schools, which were among the first to be assessed, had now met the test after increasing the number of free places they offered.

The Independent Schools Council (ISC), which represents around 1,200 private schools, previously raised concerns that the Commission was taking a "narrow approach" to the rules and has said it is seeking a judicial review of the guidelines.

ISC Head of Research Rudolf Eliott Lockhart said: "Contrary to the Sutton Trust's report, and using a larger sample and data which is both fully up to date and consistent, we have found no correlation between bursaries and a school's ranking or revenue.

"This conclusion should not surprise anyone with knowledge of this extremely diverse sector. Bursary provision will depend on many factors, not least whether the school has endowments available to it to make generous provision and the costs involved in operating the school."

A spokeswoman for the Charity Commission said: "We are aware of the Sutton Report which has specifically looked at fee remissions and bursaries for independent schools. The provision of subsidies or bursaries is only one way in which independent schools that are charities can further their charitable purposes for the public benefit.

"All activity that charities do in furtherance of their charitable aims for the public benefit is taken into account, which for schools could include sharing facilities, teaching or materials. This is information that all charities will be including in accounts prepared from 1st April 2009."