An in-depth study of financial reports at 142 fee-paying schools in England has found that schools are using "ingenious" accounting techniques, which makes it appear they are spending more on scholarships than they actually do. They are accused of building luxury facilities in an 'educational arms race' while minimising access to students from lower income families.
Researchers told the British Sociological Association's (BSA) virtual annual conference that independent schools reduced their fees for 176,234 out of their 537,315 students in 2018-19, at a cost of over £1 billion in loss of income. However, the study suggested that only 44% of this – around £440 million – was awarded as means-tested scholarships to support less well-off parents with tuition fees. It was shared between 44,395 students, which means an average of around £1,000 per student. The remaining amount was awarded in scholarships to students with sporting or musical talent or on discounts for teachers' own children.
According to the report, only 6,118 students – around 1% of all independent school students – received a full scholarship and only a further 2% received remissions of 75-99% on fees.
This report highlights how UK school scholarships have become less about financial value and more about prestige. No longer are scholarships the way to fund a private education in the UK, although they can be the stepping-stone to a means-tested bursary. Instead, fee remission is being increasingly awarded through bursaries rather than scholarships.
One of the researchers, Dr Malcolm James, Head of Accounting, Economics and Finance at Cardiff Metropolitan University, said:
"Given the levels of fees, the overwhelming majority of scholarship students still require very substantial family contributions. Many scholarships may, in practice, be awarded to middle- or upper-class families. Scholarships may therefore do little to make schools genuinely more socially inclusive."
Dr James found that scholarships were equivalent to around 5% of schools' income. He claimed that schools are using their income to “build ever more substantial and luxurious facilities in an educational arms race designed to attract high-end clientele and to justify high fees”.
Last year, the Independent Schools Council (ISC), which represents more than 1,300 independent schools in the UK, reported that just over 59,000 of its students were awarded a non-means tested scholarship, each receiving an average of £3,380 per year. Nearly half of all students on means-tested bursaries had more than half of their fees remitted and 5,858 paid no fees at all.
In response to the BSA study, Julie Robinson, chief executive of the Independent Schools Council (ISC), said that independent schools are committed to widening access. She said that the value of means-tested fee assistance provided by schools has increased by over £175 million since 2011 to reach £440 million in 2019; this is being increasingly awarded through bursaries rather than scholarships.
“Schools spend far more on bursaries than on scholarships; in fact, over double the amount is spent on means-tested bursaries compared to scholarships. Bursaries are specifically targeted at those whose financial circumstances merit fee assistance.
“Means-tested bursary funding is provided to both low- and middle-income families and many schools are striving to do more to provide places for disadvantaged pupils, but are doing so in an environment where they also need to be mindful of holding down fee increases despite facing growing costs.”