Great Britain

Independent Schools Guide: Putting the focus on fees

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Financial help for parents comes in a wide variety of ways, discovers Sarah Devine

For many parents contemplating the schooling of their children, an independent education evokes thoughts of frightening fees and additional costs that seem far beyond their financial reach. But the sector in Scotland is massively diverse and far more accessible than people tend to think.

From means-tested bursaries, scholarships, sibling discounts to a range of trusts offering contributions, the financial support available to parents and guardians appears plentiful.

So much so that more than per cent of pupils attending Scotland’s independent schools receive financial help, with 3.3 per cent of senior school pupils having their fees paid for in full by their school, according to the Scottish Council of Independent Schools (SCIS).

Each institution offers means-tested bursaries for up to 100 per cent fee remission, and the most recent figures by SCIS show that more than £51 million was given by the sector in fee assistance during 2018. That was despite a three-year battle against the removal of charitable relief on up to 20 per cent of bills for non-domestic rates, which will come into effect on 1 September, according to reports.

But this impressive financial offering shows the sector’s dedication to providing children across the country with a first-rate education, while remaining as accessible as possible.

Rod Grant, headmaster at Clifton Hall School in Edinburgh, maintains: “People think the schools are very wealthy organisations, but we are not. We are charities and therefore not-for-profit. [Removal of rates relief] will have no impact on our cost to operate, but we will have to find an additional £80,000 – which is a significant increase in costs.

“The whole idea of the sector at the moment is to remove the elitist name tag and become a much more ingrained part of the community. I am very passionate about that.”

Clifton Hall School, which offers an all-through day education for boys and girls, remains dedicated to the financial support it offers the parents and guardians of its pupils.

And aside from the cost of fees, Grant insists the cost of attending Clifton Hall is the same as attending any other school in the country.

Dr Michael Carslaw, the headmaster of co-educational St Leonards School in St Andrews, shares that pride in the sector’s offering of fee support.

“We celebrate diversity here, and it is very important that people from all backgrounds can take advantage of St Leonards,” he explains. “It is a concern about increased costs, because the loss of rates relief is an additional cost that we will now have to consider.

“However, parents can certainly continue to make the most of our bursary system. We are going through our bursary cycle for entry for 2021 just now, and we are very much looking forward to welcoming people with bursary support through to school.”

Those parents who do pay some or all of the school fees can also find comfort in knowing that the schools strive to avoid high fee costs and rises.

At St George’s School for Girls in Edinburgh, there is a focus on ensuring parents receive the best value for money. Headmistress Alex Hems says: “It has certainly been a challenge for all the schools in the sector, but we have worked hard in our budget last year to try to keep our fee rise down and we were successful in keeping it to being one of the lowest increases in Edinburgh.”

So what do the fees cover? The sector charges fees to cover the costs of tuition, as it receives no funding from the government, and these vary widely between schools.

Parents should enquire about the fees a year before their child enrols in a school, and its bursar should be able to outline what financial support is available.

Additional costs should also be considered, such as for uniforms and sport equipment, where not included in the fees.

“We have caterers that provide three-course meals each day, so that is an extra cost. But that is very reasonable, especially in terms of promoting healthy eating and convenience for parents,” says Linda Moule, principal at Edinburgh-based Erskine Stewart’s Melville Schools.

“Children these days are not required to buy that many books, not because we don’t think they are important, but because they tend to date quite quickly, so there are resources they can use instead of making purchases.”

She adds: “We want our fees to be affordable and value for money but we do recognise there are pressures on working life and family patterns. We offer wrap-around care, particularly for our younger children. We have a facility open in the morning for the younger children to be looked after. For our older pupils who don’t need that level of supervision, we have a breakfast club which is a very helpful thing.”

Similarly, at Ardvreck prep school in Crieff, parents of boarders and day pupils can leave the worrying to the school when it comes to meals and after-school activities.

Headmistress Ali Kinge says: “The fees are for absolutely everything. All activities are included – as are lunch and snacks – so the parents do not have to worry about anything.

“By the time they have finished their school day at 6 o’clock, children will have done all their music practice, their sports clubs, and they have had all their meals – and there is nothing extra to pay.”

Although there has been a slight shift in focus towards mean-tested bursaries, those pupils with talents in a particular area such as music or sport can usually apply for a scholarship. These also vary between schools and can be as much as a 10 to 50 per cent reduction in fees or a one-off award which can be paid at any stage of a pupil’s learning.

Many schools view the fee reduction as recognition of the parents’ efforts to get their child to scholarship level.

Not wanting to separate families, the schools usually ensure that the brothers and sisters of pupils receive a discount, which is often increased each time a sibling enrols.

Overall, independent schools see bursary assistance continuing in the foreseeable future, despite current political debates. “Rates relief won’t make much change to financial assistance,” predicts Mark Becher, headmaster at The Compass School in Haddington, East Lothian’s sole independent primary school.

“It is being mentioned as a main argument because we in the independent sector have pointed out how much assistance is provided by the schools.

“I don’t imagine schools will stop offering that financial assistance any more. We exist as charities and our charitable status is not changing.

“All of the independent schools have gone through a very rigorous review, more so than any other charity in Scotland, and we have continued to show very much the substantial public benefit that we provide.”

That sentiment is echoed by Jonathan Anderson, headmaster of Edinburgh’s Merchiston Castle School , who adds: “[The scrapping of rates relief] is an additional pressure, and obviously one of the reasons why we had charitable relief is because of the charitable element of what we do, which is to offer means-tested bursaries and support.

“That said, we are very much committed to continuing bursary support.”