First class school, economy class fees: Reduce the cost of private education with scholarships and bursaries

During a recession, many of us tighten the belt. Perhaps we can forgo the family holiday and new car, pack a lunch. But when it comes to educating children, should our plans change?

Private schools in the UK have a long tradition of offering financial support to students. Broadly, there are two types of award: scholarships and bursaries. Bursaries are means tested. Scholarships are awarded for outstanding ability. "You could be as rich as Croesus – if your child is clever enough, they'd win a scholarship regardless," says Steve Boyes, Principal of Mander Portman Woodward (MPW), a fifth- and sixth-form college in London. "Bursaries give people struggling to meet schools' fees a leg up. Scholarships aim to attract talented young people, regardless of their circumstances."

First, then, to scholarships. Awards may be given for outstanding all-round ability, creative flair in art, drama or music, or for sporting success. Applicants are usually assessed on their academic history, an exam, an interview and, sometimes, a portfolio of work.

Some schools also offer 'restricted scholarships'. For example, at Harrow – one of the UK's most famous boys' independent schools – the Sherwood Scholarship was introduced this year, and is only available to boys from the East Midlands area. Another common practice is for schools to prioritise applicants with parents in certain professions, such as the clergy or the Armed Forces, or the children of former pupils.

"The tendency is for scholarship values to be of much less than they used to be," says Mike Lower, General Secretary at the Independent Schools' Bursars Association (ISBA). "A scholarship is recognition of ability – which may be, say, a 20 per cent discount on fees. Any further funding is justified by means testing." Indeed, a scholarship may do more to boost your status than your bank balance. "Some are purely kudos," says Boyes. "Every school wants it to be cool to be clever. As a Scholar, you get certain privileges and respect." Back to Harrow, where the 'Honorary Scholarship' has no actual financial value whatsoever.

Bursaries are something different. They're designed to help students from lower income households either get into, or remain in, fee-paying schools. The ISBA can provide a template form to help schools gather information, such as details of parents' income, taxable profiles, social security benefits and so on. "Schools can then go ahead and make their own judgement," says Lower. Christ's Hospital boarding school in West Sussex is king among bursars. Cast preconceptions aside: here is a high-achieving independent school, in which the majority hail from state primaries; around 25 per cent of their students would qualify for free school meals. Over 60 per cent are single parent families. David Cooke, Clerk and Chief Executive of the Christ's Hospital Foundation, says: "We are, by an order of magnitude, the most generous school in the country when it comes to philanthropy. Over 95 per cent of our students currently receive bursaries, and 16 per cent pay nothing. Our children are diverse, representative and unpretentious." Clever, too: 16 of its 125 upper sixth pupils got Oxbridge offers this year. Cooke says this is because Christ's Hospital is "unashamedly selective" when it comes to academic ability.

Unsurprisingly, competition for scholarships and bursaries is fierce. "We have to turn a lot of people down," Boyes admits, adding "across the sector, awards of 10 to 20 per cent are the common ones." At Christ's Hospital, "we get about four applicants for every bursary". While parents can apply for a bursary at any time during their child's time at school, scholarships are usually allocated well before the start of term. So do your sums, find the right school, think carefully about their strengths, be realistic about the support available – and get your funding application in early. It may yet be possible to stick with Plan A.