Bursaries and scholarships: Charity begins at the school gate

Independent schools may have to increase bursaries to keep their tax breaks, says Nick Jackson
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In the 1980s, Labour promised to destroy the independent sector. Some say they are now delivering on that promise.

Until last year's Charities Act, independent schools were automatically given charitable status, and the tax breaks that go with it. Now, they're being expected to earn it. Next month, the Charity Commission will publish the principles that schools will have to fulfil.

It could make uncomfortable reading. A central plank of the new deal is that people on low incomes are given access to services, a tough call for institutions with annual fees in five figures. "If a charity is consistently failing in its duties, we have powers to remove trustees, freeze assets, and distribute funds to other charities in the sector," says a Charity Commission spokesperson. Chilling stuff.

The Commission says it does not expect to act against "large swathes" of schools, but the prospect of even a handful being frozen and dismembered is causing a collective shudder.

Many schools believe that the move will mean introducing or expanding expensive means-tested bursaries. "Schools are now thinking much more about bursaries," says Jonathan Cook, general secretary of the Independent Schools Bursars' Association.

Some schools are swapping academic scholarships for means-tested bursaries to meet the Commission's guidelines, Cook says. Others, in particular schools without large endowments, have to start from scratch.

Many schools have nothing to worry about. The established independents, particularly the big names like Eton and Winchester, have long offered academic scholarships and means-tested bursaries. Westminster has had academic scholars since the 12th century, and when assisted places were abolished in 1997 it introduced its own means-tested bursaries in their place. "We don't turn anybody away because they can't pay the fees," says John Curtis, the registrar.

Now, more schools are doing the same. Heads are unwilling to link this with concerns over the Charities Act, but, in private, some registrars admit that it has been a spur. Before last year, Prior's Field, an independent girls school in Surrey, offered ad hoc financial assistance to parents and a few scholarships worth around one-fifth of fees. Now, for six sixth-formers arriving from state schools, Prior's Field has bursaries worth 95 per cent of the £12,000-a-year day-school fees. "We feel it is the right thing to do," says Julie Roseblade, the head. "This was not done as a result of the Charities Commission. It's a spin-off benefit, but it wasn't the trigger."

Even schools with strong endowments and long histories of scholarships are adjusting their financial assistance. Tonbridge School earns £1.6m a year interest on its endowment, money it has traditionally used to offer scholarships, with varying levels of financial assistance, but until now few means-tested bursaries. Now, academic scholarships are set at 10 per cent, with further means-tested Foundation Awards being phased in. The aim, says head Tim Haynes, is to have 10 per cent of the school on 100 per cent assistance by 2026. "We're convinced that this is top-quality education and we have a social responsibility to make it more widely available," he says.

Other schools also support considerable numbers on bursaries. The Girls' Day School Trust (GDST) runs 29 independent schools. The Trust spends £10m a year, nearly 7 per cent of its fee income, on bursaries and scholarships. Via sponsorship the Trust can nearly double that money, providing assistance for 20 per cent of its pupils, most on means-tested bursaries. "It's just a case of making the approaches," says Valerie Dunsford, head of Sheffield High School GDST, who finds sponsors through her chamber of commerce and in the Directory of Grant Making Trusts.

The HSBC Education Trust is one sponsor, paying 50 per cent of the fees for 12 students in GDST schools. HSBC Education sponsors 48 scholarships at 24 British independent schools (it supports 6,000 scholarships worldwide). HSBC also supports programmes at Dulwich College, Tonbridge and City of London School for Boys. "There's nothing children cannot achieve given the right support," says Mary Richardson, the head of HSBC Education.