‘If the government were to move to a joint-funding model, many independent schools would be happy to ‘top up’ state provision with bursary resources’

Sue Hincks, Headmistress of Bolton School Girls’ Division, writes in support of the ISC’s ‘10,000 places’ proposal and argues that many independent schools would be happy to ‘top up’ state provision with bursaries.
With National Offer Day this week, attention inevitably turns to fears about the capacity of our school system to cope with the numbers moving in to secondary school.

Last year, it was widely reported that one in six secondary schools was at or over capacity, with forecasts estimating that 300,000 additional school places would be needed by 2020. The Local Government Association (LGA) suggested that, unless academies agreed to expand, the ability to provide enough school places could be “put at risk”. Data revealed that the councils facing shortfalls in places by 2019-20 included my home town of Bolton, along with Manchester, Oldham, Leeds, Leicester, Birmingham, Walsall, Bexley, Greenwich, Richmond upon Thames, Sutton and Slough.

It is in this context of a looming crisis in school places that the ISC (the Independent Schools Council) wants to offer 10,000 places a year, which would reduce the burden on state provision. The ISC, representing 1,200 independent schools, has said it could provide such places on a means-tested basis, thereby benefiting children from lower socio economic backgrounds or ‘just about managing’ families. After all, closing the opportunity gap in education is of key significance for a Prime Minister who wants her administration to be driven “not by the interests of the privileged few, but by yours.”

An institution like Bolton School is a key contributor to social mobility in its locality. We are inheritors of the direct grant system and try to operate as close to that model as we can, albeit without government funding.

Currently, over one in five pupils at our two, large Senior Schools is in receipt of a means-tested bursary. In the Girls’ Division two thirds of our Bursaries are worth at least 75% of school fees and one third of girls on a bursary receives 100% of school fees. In 2015-16, our bursary spend equalled £2.7 million. We have raised £700K from current alumni, parents, and legacies in the past year.

In addition to fundraising, we contribute to our Bursary Scheme through the profits of our commercial enterprises, Bolton School Services Limited. It is the Governors’ express intention that we should aim for a bursary for one in four of our children and we are getting nearer to this target each year.

We are not alone. In the sector as a whole, £348 million is spent on means-tested bursaries and £23 million on scholarships with a bursarial element. 32% of children in independent schools receive help with fees and 40% of bursaries are at a level that exceeds 75% of the full fee.

And yet, we could do more! Every year we turn away many applicants who would love to come to our School but whose parents are unable to pay the fees. We look for more and more imaginative ways of raising bursary funds and we talk to more and more former pupils who might be willing to help fund a child’s education. After all, when Lord Leverhulme re-endowed both the Girls’ Division and the Boys’ Division a century ago, it was his express wish to make a Bolton School education open to all, regardless of means. At the same time, we try to keep fees as low as possible so that we do not squeeze out ‘middle-income’ families by becoming unaffordable.

With grammar schools apparently asking parents to make up funding shortfalls and NHS patients requesting treatment in private hospitals in the name of Patient Choice, there is increasing fluidity between the private and state sectors. If the government were to move to a joint-funding model, many independent schools would be happy to ‘top up’ state provision with bursary resources.

Alternatively, adapting the Tax-free Childcare voucher scheme to include school fees could help parents by giving them more choice where to send their children and, as we already see in health provision, the private sector could relieve some of the pressure on the state. Such vouchers work successfully in the Netherlands.

Through measures like these, the independent sector would undertake to expand its capacity to take in pupils. 10,000 extra places wouldn’t make National Offer Day any less anxiety-inducing for the parents of Year 6 children. But it might help more of them celebrate that their son or daughter had the chance to go to a school of their choice.

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