Means tested bursaries - is your policy up to scratch?

31 March 2016

Bursaries are essentially charitable grants and governors and management have a duty to ensure that charitable funds are directed appropriately. In the case of bursaries it is not only for those who are most deserving but also for those where they will have the most impact. It is therefore important that the school has a formal policy in place with full input from the governors.

A good bursary policy

The bursary policy should be reviewed regularly in conjunction with the overall public benefit strategy.

Importantly the policy for bursaries should be independent of pupil selection and academic/other scholarship decisions (although many pupils may benefit from both). Decisions that should be taken into account and incorporated into the policy include:

  • the level of funds that can be made available for bursaries and hardship funds;
  • how many bursaries to award and the level of funds to be awarded each year;
  • the level of individual bursaries to be awarded (deep vs shallow and maximum percentage);
  • how to ensure full awareness of bursaries – advertising strategy etc; and
  • reporting: your annual accounts should be clear on levels of bursaries given and the impact they have had (more than just percentage of fees awarded).

The policy itself should provide the detail and practical considerations that come from the overall strategy and should:

  • evidence what the school is seeking to achieve;
  • provide details of how the school will advertise and promote awareness;
  • provide full details of the application process and financial and non-financial criteria required; and
  • explains how bursaries will be awarded and who will be responsible for administration, initial assessment and monitoring.

The policy should also cover hardship bursaries for existing pupils including what changes in circumstances can trigger a hardship case and how can existing parents apply. Importantly bursaries should not come with an open ended cheque book, as with any charitable grant there needs to be a process of annual review. Circumstances can change significantly within a year. The policy should ensure that confidentiality is observed by all parties and that data protection requirements are met.

It may also be appropriate to signpost parents to additional or alternative sources of bursary funding. External bursary assistance is available from a wide range of sources. This can be combined with school funds to bolster bursaries available.

Practical considerations

  • How do you assess whether a pupil is eligible? 
  • What information should you request and how can you analyse it?
  • What level of ongoing monitoring will you put in place and who will do this?

When awarding bursaries you need to consider the ability of the parents to fund the balance of fees and any extras required. Ensuring parents don’t overstretch themselves is both commercial (in terms of future bad debts) and moral common sense. There should be a contractual requirement and mechanism for parents to notify the school of changes in circumstances (favourable or not) that may impact the bursary. Consideration is also needed at the initial stage of the availability of other funds; grandparents etc. Many school policies require such sources to be fully exhausted before a bursary can be considered.


So once you have set the criteria how do you assess if someone meets it?

Parents should provide details not only of earnings from main employment but also any other sources of income such as investments, second properties, business interests etc. The application process should also require parents to disclose all assets and if necessary how readily they can be liquidated to provide cash. This could range from shares to cars to holiday homes. Ask for information on other sources of funds – can extended family assist with school fees?

The application should also require details of other siblings in private education and other bursaries being obtained elsewhere. Many policies require bursary funding to be sought at all schools essentially 'spreading the load'. Home visits are an important but still somewhat controversial method of means testing with many schools seeing them as intrusive. Others do not have the resources to undertake them. Other means of gathering and verifying information are also available with most people having some form of online presence. Google maps and social media are great tools available as are many business databases at reasonably low cost. In practice the means testing process sits on a scale from a full individual review including a home visit to a more 'tick box' approach against indicators or benchmarks. 

If you would to discuss any of the points further, please contact Heather Wheelhouse, or your usual RSM adviser.

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