Why a private education may be more affordable than you think

Fees at independent schools are high but there are funds available to soften the blow. By Steve McCormack

In today’s difficult economic climate, it’d be hard to find many households that aren’t feeling the financial pinch. Nevertheless, hundreds of thousands of families still manage to find the money to pay school fees in the independent education sector. The number of children going to the UK’s 2,600 private schools is around the 620,000 mark, which represents 6.5 per cent of the entire school-age population.

And those figures have remained broadly unchanged through the last few, economically turbulent years. The level of fees varies enormously, of course. At the lower end of the scale, a small private primary school, away from London, might cost between £1,000 to £2,000 a term, while sending your secondary-age child to board at one of the prestigious public schools is likely to set you back around £10,000 a term.

Last year’s average per-term figure, for what it’s worth, at a non-boarding private school was around £4,000. There’s one important point to bear in mind, though, if you’re considering sending your son or daughter as a day pupil to a school that has boarding facilities. The fees are likely to reflect the costs of providing boarding and weekend facilities, because your child will, to a degree, benefit from these during the Monday-to-Friday school day.

Wherever on the scale you look, these are far from trifling amounts. However, it is perhaps not widely known that, in a sizeable proportion of cases, parents do not end up paying the full amount. This is because almost all independent schools have specially allocated funds to subsidise some families.

The Independent Schools Council (ISC) represents schools educating four out of five children in the independent sector, and counts in its membership all the world-renowned names, with centuries of established success, such as Eton, Winchester and Harrow, as well as thousands of other schools serving children of all ages, with reputations more regional in nature. A recent report from the ISC revealed that about a third of all pupils attending its schools received financial help of some sort.

The targeting of this financial help has undergone a change in the last decade, away from handing out money in the form of scholarships (on academic, sporting or artistic merit), without regard to parents’ wealth, towards awarding means-tested bursaries to children from families of more modest income.

“The move towards means-tested bursaries has come about because independent schools are being pushed by the Charity Commission,” says Mike Lower, general secretary of the Independent Schools’ Bursars Association (ISBA), “and it’s becoming more difficult to justify giving huge grants to bright children from well-off families.”

Last year ISC schools gave twice as much money away in the form of bursaries as they did in scholarships. “Pretty much all schools have a bursary system of one sort or another, but the size of the pot varies from school to school,” says Lower. “Those with bigger endowments have large funds to devote to bursaries. Others can’t offer so much.”

It is down to the bursar of each school to decide which families qualify for which amounts – a process that is completed after pupils have satisfied the basic entrance requirements. Some schools are founded on principles that dictate that a substantial proportion of pupils receive their education A recent report from the Independent Schools Council revealed that about a third of all pupils attending its schools received financial help of some sort at no, or little, cost to their families.

Prominent among these is Christ’s Hospital in West Sussex, set up by a foundation 450 years ago with the express aim of providing an education for children in social, financial or other need. The school currently has 820 boys and girls, aged between 11 and 18, with the main entry points at 11-plus, 13-plus and 16-plus. Of these, only 11 per cent pay the full boarding fee of £25,000 a year. Seventy-five per cent receive a subsidy of one size or another from the foundation, and 14 per cent have the entire fee paid for them.

Last summer, almost all those leaving the school went on to leading universities, and 14 pupils went to Oxford or Cambridge. This is just one example of how, across the independent sector, the raw figures show academic results far out-stripping those of state schools. For the Christ’s Hospital head master, John Franklin, the special nature of the bursary approach gives the school a unique character. “We take children out of needy homes and provide them with a home-away-from-home,” he explains. “The result is a very egalitarian ethos, where the children are completely unpretentious. They don’t dwell on home background. They judge each other on what they say and do at school.”

Like almost all independent schools, Christ’s Hospital selects pupils at least partially on academic merit. But each school has its own twist on the process, and parents contemplating educating their children privately should find out the exact mix of criteria governing entrance to their chosen schools. These can be quite complicated and time consuming, and, for the most sought after schools, it’s not uncommon for the application and selection process to start two or three years before the intended enrolment date.

Some schools set a very high academic bar, requiring applicants to sit entrance exams before deciding whether or not to interview children and their parents. Others, while not entirely ignoring academic ability, will give more weight to sporting or artistic aptitude, or make a judgement about a child’s strengths in a number of academic and social areas, in an attempt to build up a picture of how the whole child will respond to, and thrive in, the school environment, inside and outside lessons.

An additional layer of the process may come into play if parents are applying for a scholarship on grounds of all-round academic strength or talent in an artistic or sporting field. But while schools retain the right to select their pupils, it should be remembered that the parents are principally in the role of customers, so the schools have to ensure they communicate the values of the education there are providing. In this light, the chairman of the ISC, Barnaby Lenon, identifies some key strengths exhibited by all member schools: “The four things that parents committed to fee-paying are looking for, and that independent schools offer, are high-quality teaching, high expectations of pupils, very good discipline and a full, vibrant programme of extracurricular activities.”

Lenon speaks from considerable experience in the sector. Head of Harrow School in London until recently, he has worked at, and been a governor of, a number of different independent schools for the last 30 years. “As a result of these strengths, pupils are getting good exam results, and, in the case of our prep schools, entry to good secondary schools; a good understanding of how to work, how to get on with people within a moral code; and they are developing skills, through activities such as sport and music, of working as part of a team and maintaining life-time interests.”

In the area of exams, there’s a growing trend at many independent schools to offer qualifications, such as International GCSEs and the International Baccalaureate,that are widely regarded as more rigorous than those offered at state schools. The question of whether or not to board often arises. But, in this light Lenon argues that, although full boarding fees can be “horrendously expensive,” they represent tremendous value for money. “What many people don’t realise is that boarding schools do not make much of a surplus on the boarding operation.

Schools are looking after children 24 hours a day and usually seven days a week, which takes a lot of manpower,” he explains. “At Harrow, for example, there are 100 teachers and 500 other staff. You are providing 3,000 meals a day, full medical care, armies of cleaners and people involved in pastoral care, and laying on activities right through the weekend.”

So what are the particular benefits of boarding? And what factors should parents bear in mind when considering whether to send a child to an independent school as a day pupil or a boarder? At Kingham Hill School, established in the late 19th century in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds, close to Chipping Norton, headmaster Nick Seward often has to deal with this question.

“Quite a lot of parents ask this,” he says. “It’s usually the mothers who are most fretful, and I usually begin by saying that the boarding experience is a gift you give to your son or daughter, because it gives them an experience of living with – and learning to get on with – other people, which develops a character and independence that they would not get elsewhere.”

Kingham Hill has 285 pupils, boys and girls, from Year 7 (11-year-olds) to Year 13 (A-level takers), of whom more than half are boarders. They live in boarding houses of between 25 and 30 pupils, each with a husband-and-wife team of house parents, helped by tutors and pastoral assistants. Seward concedes that the life of a boarder is not for everyone, and when parents are undecided he offers a flexible approach. “I say they can start as a day pupil and try boarding for two nights a week, at first, to see how they like it.”

Most schools have a system where day pupils, for one reason or another, can arrange to stay overnight on occasions for a fixed nightly fee. Another decision faced by many parents is whether or not to send a child to a single sex or mixed school. Here, theories abound in favour of both approaches, but among the most forthright of cases is that put by the Girls’ Day School Trust, an organisation affiliated to the ISC but which represents 26 all-girl independent schools, mostly taking girls aged three to 18.

The trust’s chief executive, Helen Fraser, thinks that an all-girl environment can help break down feelings of underlying insecurity which can exist within many girls. “When girls are educated in single-sex schools, they are the leaders: head of school, captain of games, leader of the debating society. They find their voices, and they get used to the challenges of leadership,” she argues. It’s the same in the classroom: girls can take intellectual risks, ask questions or make judgements without worrying about ‘looking stupid in front of boys’.”

“In science lessons it’s the girl tackling the boiling test tube and the Bunsen burner; in school plays it is the girls who do the casting and directing; on the sports field it is the girls who plan the strategy and score the goals.”

There are countless examples of girls (and boys) who’ve shone at mixed schools, of course, and Fraser’s remarks underline the point that, in all independent schools, great weight is placed upon helping every individual child to reach the extremes of their potential.



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