Independent Schools Guide: Plan early to deal with fees

Whether a school has been selected or the decision is still to be made, one major factor for anyone hoping to secure a place for their child at an independent school is the financial implications.

Helping hand: St Leonards in Fife offers a range of scholarships to help ensure that no suitable potential pupil is left behind

Despite annual tuition fees sitting anywhere between £9,000 and £30,000, Scotland’s 70-plus independent schools pride themselves on being accessible to all, providing a total of £58.4 million in fee assistance each year.

About 3.6 per cent of senior pupils have 100 per cent of their tuition fees paid for, while 25.9 per cent receive some form of financial support.

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But it is vital to reach out to the schools as early as possible.

“Schools’ costs are quite varied,” says Alex Hems, headteacher at the all-girls’ St George’s School in Edinburgh.

“For example, in our junior school, we don’t charge at all for various curriculum-based trips, nor do we for textbooks, but it is worth finding out about things like that.

“When you look at different schools’ fees on their websites, they all charge for different things, so understanding more about that is very helpful.”

The school – which has appointed Carol Chandler-Thompson as its next head, beginning in August – has a finance team to guide parents through the application process.

“Nobody is going to be judgemental,” Hems adds. “Prior planning is very important but open communication with the school from the start about what they are hoping for and what they are able to afford is also.”

As one of Scotland’s only independent primary schools, The Compass School in Haddington is well versed in supporting “first-time buyers” into the sector.

Headmaster Mark Becher says: “For anybody coming into this environment, you are not alone and you will find there are quite a number of parents just like yourself.

“We ask parents, if they do have concerns about the fees, to open that conversation with us.

“It is all done in confidence; When it comes down to making [financial support] offers, nobody in the school aside from the bursar and headteacher is aware of that.

“It is no barrier to any aspect of the curriculum and in most schools you will find a number of parents who receive financial assistance.”

All schools offer some kind of assistance and most commonly that is in the form of a means-tested bursary.

Since 2011, the value of these bursaries has increased by £16m and stands at around £33m per year, according to the Scottish Council of Independent Schools.

Parents can contact a school’s bursar to begin the application process. “That is quite a detailed process but it is a very confidential element of the application,” says Liam Harvey, headmaster at St Mary’s School in Melrose.

“Ordinarily, the running order is that they apply and the committee will look at their situation and, if funds are available to make an award, that is then offered.

“At that stage I will meet the pupil or pupils and make sure that it will be a good fit for the pupil and they will be a good fit for the school; 99 times out of 100 that is the case.”

The preparatory school, which has recently launched a new digital strategy, suggests arranging the finances as soon as possible to avoid disappointment.

Harvey adds: “We try to avoid pupils coming in to have a look and then the bursary process gets under way, so as not to give a false sense of hope to young people. Hence we look at the application first then invite them to an interview.”

In addition, there are scholarships that are awarded through a competitive selection process and used to develop a particular talent.

At St Leonards in St Andrews, there is a range available for excellence in academia, music, drama, art and sport. Its Tom Morris Scholarship is given to those demonstrating outstanding achievement in golf and has led recipients onto golf scholarships at Houston Baptist University in Texas and Wingate University in North Carolina.

“W e are going to make awards to those who we deem will make the best of their education at St Leonards,” says headmaster Simon Brian.

“We award academic attainment, but we now want to award academic leadership. This means not only showing that we reward high academic performance, but those who are going to provide academic leadership and enrichment to others.”

Such accolades are also provided by Kilgraston School at Bridge of Earn, Perthshire.

“The scholarship doesn’t give any remission of fees but if you are awarded a music scholarship, the school provides instrumental lessons, a sports one results in sports lessons being paid for,” says headmistress Dorothy MacGinty. She highlights that there are other methods to ease any strain on finances.

“There are lots of different ways of paying such as monthly or in advance and then there is a reduction of the fees.

“We do have a hardship fund as well,” she mentions, pointing to the school’s Education Access Programme.

At smaller schools, such as the Christian-based Regius School in Newcraighall, East Lothian, the tuition fees are based on attendance.

Headmaster Stephen Kennedy – who joined six months ago – says: “We have some students who come to school three days a week.

“Some parents have chosen to do some homeschooling or are unable to get here every day of the week.

“With those students they pay pro rata, so they would pay for three-fifths of the week.”

At the Edinburgh-based St Mary’s Music School there is the provision of the Aided Places Scheme, available to those aged at least seven years old. Depending on income, the scheme can be used to assist with tuition fees, school clothing, boarding fees and travel for day pupils.

Headteacher Dr Kenneth Taylor says: “What that enables families to do is pay an affordable contribution to the school whether they are a boarder or a day pupil and it is based on income.

“They should look at the website and then phone to speak to our admissions bursar who will guide them through the process. They will also outline what that contribution might look like to that family and I have to say it is an incredible deal.”

For parents who still aren’t sure, Andrew McGarva, rector at Morrison’s Academy in Crieff, advises: “Our bursary programme is there and I would always advise looking at our school and seeing if it is a fit for you. If it is, and you feel finances are a little bit tight, apply for the bursary programme.

“We want to make sure we support people in accessing this wonderful education and it shouldn’t just be for the wealthy.

“We really want to make sure we support families who can benefit from what we offer.”

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