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Bursaries: how your child could attend a private school in London for less

There’s much more to independent schools in the UK than just rugger, lacrosse and the Queen’s English. These bastions of educational excellence have small class sizes, first-class facilities and table topping exam results – but it all comes at a cost.

The fees required to attend these prestigious institutions, often price families out of the market. For example, average fees for day pupils are now nearly £5,218 per term, or just over £15,500 a year. If that sounds steep, wait until you hear the annual cost of sending your child to Hurtwood House school in Surrey: £39,555 – making it the most expensive fee-paying school in the UK.

If you harbour dreams of your child benefiting from a private education, but the fees are a bit beyond your budget, help is available. There are various financial avenues you can explore that allow you to take advantage of reduced fees – or even fee-free places.

What are Scholarships and Bursaries for private schools?

Independent schools are coming under increased pressure to justify their charitable status, which has prompted greater generosity in the form of scholarships and means-tested bursaries. So, what’s the difference between the two?

  • Scholarship: a financial award granted to a student based on their academic or sporting excellence.
  • Bursary (often referred to as an “assisted place”): a financial award granted to a student based on the student’s financial circumstances.

Family income isn’t considered when awarding scholarships. Some independent schools offer scholarships covering 100% of fees – but this is uncommon. In general, most scholarships are worth 20% to 40% of the annual fees – provided the child passes the entrance exams.

Bursaries are geared towards gifted children from families who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford to send them to an independent school. They’re means-tested, so the school assesses what’s reasonable for a family to afford and sets a fee accordingly. This sometimes results in the fees being waived altogether – with extra money often available to help with the cost of uniforms, laptops, trips and other travel costs.

Parents of children who win a scholarship can usually apply for a bursary as well: this means that the child gains a place at the school based on their ability, but the bursary makes it possible for them to attend.

Over 175,000 – around a third – of Independent Schools Council (ISC) students currently benefit from some form of fee reduction – around half through means testing. The number of those that have had their fees waived is now more than 6,000 – an increase of 5% year-on-year.

Applying for scholarships and bursaries


Independent schools typically allocate their academic scholarships based on the results of their entrance exam, with the awards going to the pupils who achieve the highest marks. Potential students don’t usually need to sit a separate exam to assess whether they’re eligible for an academic scholarship.

If, however, your child is applying for a scholarship based on their aptitude in a specific subject, they might be required to sit an additional exam in that subject or demonstrate their ability in a certain sport.


To apply for a means-tested bursary, you’ll need to provide evidence of your financial circumstances: income, assets, other dependent family members and spending habits.

This process varies from school to school:

  • Most independent schools publish a calculator on their websites to identify what financial assistance might be available for children that pass their entrance exams.
  • Others treat each application on a case-by-case basis.

It can be a challenge for independent schools to get applications from the families for whom their bursaries are intended. That’s because many parents are unaware that the financial threshold to qualify for assistance is often surprisingly high – or they simply don’t know bursaries exist.

The Simply London tip

Find an independent school for your child using the ISC school search.

This allows you to search a private school by type of fee assistance and other requirements, such as location, age range, day and boarding.

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