Bursaries for poorer children to attend private fee-paying schools have been far too scarce to significantly open up access to them to the less affluent. According to new research on social mobility found that the bursaries could not “account for more than a minor share of the participation” of families with lower incomes.
Bursaries and grants “are relatively low in value and distributed to only one in five of families” outside the top 10% richest families, according to the research by University College London’s institute of education.
Bursary programmes have often been cited in response to criticisms that high fees continue to make the schools the preserve of the rich. The findings challenge the idea that such schemes have made a major dent in the exclusivity of private schools. The team also found a link between middle- and lower-income families with children in private education and housing wealth, suggesting booming house prices have helped them get access to private schooling despite higher fees.
“Though income progressive and related to need, bursaries and grants are relatively low in value and distributed to only one in five of families outside the top decile; they cannot, therefore, account for more than a minor share of the participation of these non-income-rich families,” the team concluded. “However, among homeowners, non-rich families with privately educated children have much greater housing wealth than families with children in state schools.
Britain remained “distinctive” in the significant social and economic divide between private and state school pupils, describing it as “among the highest in the developed world”. While about 9% of adults have been to an independent school, private schooling remained “a significant pathway through which some families obtain long-term advantages for their children”.
The proportion of pupils helped with financial support has not significantly increased, despite the costs of private schooling rising considerably. By 2018, the average annual basic fee was £14,280 for day schools and £33,684 for boarding schools - a 60% real-terms increase from 2000 and three times the 1980 fees.
Since 1997, they found that throughout the period, around 15 out of every 100 pupils received direct financial support. The value of financial support was around £4,900 in 2011–2018, little changed from earlier periods and “thus accounting for a smaller fraction of the fees: 35% compared with 57% in the first period”.
The paper concludes: “The data could not conclusively support claims that the private school sector has widened access for students from low-income families through more generous financial support.”