Funding and marketing school bursaries

Independent school bursaries help widen access and provide opportunities to students from all backgrounds. Justin Smith offers ideas to fund and market them

Author details

Justin is managing director of Chameleon Training and Consultancy. He previously worked at Wymondham College as director of marketing and development and has expertise in bid writing and income generation.

Independent schools are required to demonstrate that they provide sufficient ‘public benefit’ to justify continuation of the tax relief that accompanies their charitable status.

They can decide for themselves the best way in which they could offer public benefit, and this shows itself in many ways such as:

  • partnerships with local state schools providing access to facilities and the secondment of teachers and other specialist staff
  • the sponsoring of academies
  • bursaries and scholarships to help make termly fees affordable to families who otherwise would never consider a private education for their child.

Data from the Independent Schools Council (ISC) suggests that a third of pupils at ISC schools are on reduced fees and about 6000 pupils pay no fees at all.

Often these fees are being met by the school itself, an education trust or, in some cases, a local authority.

The total value of independent school bursaries awarded each year is around £300m; nearly 80% of the cost is borne by the schools themselves, with donations and charitable trusts covering much of the remainder.

Means tested fee reduction schemes such as bursaries or scholarships can provide opportunities for families who, under normal circumstances, would have no way of raising the necessary funds, though the threshold for receiving financial help can vary significantly.

Funding the bursaries

Establishing an income generation strategy, and a structured programme to suit, is the first step towards successfully funding bursaries on a sustainable basis.

The annual ISC report highlighted the number of private schools who have launched their own bursary fundraising campaigns, reaching out to alumni and parents past and present to contribute.

Some are aiming to be able to offer more than 25% of places as fully funded bursary places. Others are hoping to become 'needs blind', which means that any child who would benefit from going to the school would be able to have a place, irrespective of their family income.

What do other schools do?

Sixth-formers at Millfield School in Somerset are encouraged to contribute to a ‘Leavers' Scholarship’, helping fund bursaries for children from families who cannot afford the fees. This approach, modelled on American Ivy League fundraising methods, is typical of the approach taken by private schools to fund bursaries and scholarships.

Research carried out by the Sutton Trust found that while schools earned 88% of their total income through fees, in almost all cases schools were funding bursaries from ‘other income’ – earnings from lettings, bank interest, donations and other innovative schemes.

Stamford School, in Lincolnshire, for example state that governors are ‘required to set aside a sum for the provision of bursaries, being an amount equal to 2% of the income received from parents for tuition, exclusive of extra subjects’.

Some schools do indeed fund bursaries from fee income, for example Gateways School, in West Yorkshire, state that: 'Although we have no endowments we annually ring fence £80,000 from income to widen access to the school.’

Wellington College in Berkshire are using fees from their international schools to fund an ambitious plan to provide significant fee remission for 25% of students by 2028, and then to double this to 50% by 2038.

Getting buy-in

The charity Future First found that private donations to independent schools provide £130m and that developing emotive buy-in between a former student and their school is key to converting a prospect into an active donor.

There will be numerous motivators behind alumni donations such as:

  • a sense of duty
  • nostalgia
  • a need for recognition or enlightened self-interest
  • out of genuine altruism.

Whatever the motivator, a potential donor must rationalise and frame their donation, so it best satisfies their own needs. This is where the school needs to develop a series of campaigns and mechanisms to appeal to a range of alumni – one size doesn’t fit all.

Marketing the bursary offering

Competition from the state sector is as fierce as ever, with a narrowing of the gap between academic outcomes and opportunities for students. Private schools are having to work harder than ever to encourage high flying students away from both traditional and state boarding schools.

Bursary offerings need to be marketed with the same sense of vigour as the school would its fee-paying admissions. As such, a consistent and structured approach is needed, with a diverse marketing mix that incorporates digital media and more traditional face to face methods.

Schools shouldn’t be shy in encouraging parents, via the usual channels, to come forward and openly ask what support may be available.

The ISC suggests that specific open days should be added to the school calendar, aimed at potential bursary applicants so they can have dedicated one-to-one time and explore the options open to them.

The ISC also propose that forming links with local housing associations, in the way Reigate Grammar has done, is a way of accessing families who may benefit from financial support.

What do other schools do?

Rugby School has gone further, launching clubs for children in disadvantaged areas, building relationships with traditionally 'harder to reach’ groups.

There are numerous success stories where alumni are reaching out to a new generation of young people who can then benefit from the education they received.

King Edward’s Boys Schools in Birmingham raises money from former students to fund and sponsor applications from families who require this support.

Partnership programmes with neighbouring schools can help develop innovative and effective ways of promoting these bursaries. A group of 22 London schools have formed an alliance to collectively market their schemes.

Establishing links with charitable trusts can promote the school bursary and scholarship offering. The Educational Trusts’ Forum is an association of educational trusts and offers a gateway for parents searching for the right level of financial support for their needs.

Public and private benefit

Through their charitable status, private schools enjoy significant tax breaks, so there are real incentives to the school delivering ’public benefit’ via bursaries and the like.

Equally, successful independent schools acknowledge that having a student population from a broad social mix, in keeping with modern society, is incredibly valuable.

Last Updated: 
08 May 2019