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Demystifying Fee Assistance: Q&A with David Goodhew, Chair of the LFAC and Headmaster of Latymer Upper School

Taking steps into the independent-schools world can feel overwhelming for a multitude of reasons – not least for the significant financial commitment of school fees. But if you’re considering sending your child to a private school, don’t let the cost put you off. Providing fee assistance for the families who need it most is an important priority for most independent schools, and many have healthy bursary pots for the right candidates. Applications for financial aid – particularly in this current climate – are growing, and a place may well be far more attainable than you think.

Here at Talk Education, we’re on a mission to demystify the bursary process. For the latest in our financial aid series, we spoke to David Goodhew, Chair of the London Fee Assistance Consortium and head of Latymer Upper School, to find out what sort of financial aid is available to London families, what questions you might be asked and how both parents and pupils are supported along the way.

What is the London Fee Assistance Consortium? Tell us about its mission

The London Fee Assistance Consortium was set up about 15 years ago with the aim of getting the message out about the availability of fee assistance. There’s a widespread perception of independent schools as being elitist, unaffordable and hard to access – and the 31 schools in the group wanted to do something to change that.

Last year, according to the ISC census, one in three pupils nationally received some form of fee assistance, to a value of £1 billion. The majority of that assistance was provided by schools themselves.

There’s a lot of work to be done to help demystify financial aid in the independent sector. A lot of people have no idea how independent schools work or what the differences are between merit-based scholarships and means-tested bursaries. It might have never occurred to a lot of families to even think about applying to an independent school.

What sort of bursaries do schools offer? How much financial aid is available?

There are some schools that might typically offer awards at the partial end (of around 10 per cent), and others who might be more focused on transformational awards – many of which, due to the abolition of direct-grant grammar status in 1976, became fee-paying schools reluctantly. Just over £440 million of the aforementioned £1 billion was spent on means-tested bursaries last year.

At Latymer, one in five pupils is on means-tested bursaries this year – and our average bursary award is over 80 per cent. Our support is very much geared towards the transformational end, but other schools take a different view and are very keen to help families in the so-called ‘squeezed middle’. Schools are very aware that affordability is a real issue, and independent-school fees aren’t what they once were. Partial bursaries are, of course, important too: we don’t want independent schools to become polarised communities for the very wealthy and the very poor – and nobody in between. The idea of a bursary is to remove the financial hurdles for those who would thrive at a school.

If I want to find out if I’m eligible for a bursary, what should I do? I just want to have a friendly chat – who am I likely to speak to? What questions will they ask me? How much support will I be eligible for?

Families often feel very nervous about contacting schools directly – particularly if they’ve got no experience in the independent sector. We know full well how daunting it can be.

Pick up the phone and have an honest conversation with the admissions team, who may well refer you to someone in the finance team who can provide much more specific advice. Don’t spend hours searching online or listening to dinner-party chat to get answers – you need to start an open dialogue with the school. Ideally, do this between April and the summer – between September to March, schools are in the hurly-burly of the 7+, 11+ and 16+, and things can be very full-on (as London parents well know!).

Most schools will take a very rounded assessment when considering whether to award a bursary. At Latymer, as a charity, we have an obligation to both our foundation and our donors to be rigorous about means-testing – because we want to make sure their money is going to the right place.

Most London schools are incredibly selective and oversubscribed. If you’re shooting for a bursary, is it even harder to get a place?

Emphatically, no. Starting the bursary process will have absolutely no impact on your child’s chances of securing a place. The admissions process is used to identify the people with the ability or potential to thrive in a school; the bursary process considers what support people might need and how much money they have. These are two completely separate, parallel processes.

Where do schools secure their bursarial funding from? 

Some schools are phenomenally lucky to have large founding endowments – so this is one possible funding stream. Another is alumni who might have benefited from a free or heavily subsidised place and, knowing what the school did for them, want to give someone else the same opportunity. 

There are also a high number of current parents who are very keen to help in whatever way they can; they are proud of the school they’ve chosen for their child. A lot of schools launch a mass-effort annual bursary appeal, which might raise anything up to £500,000. At Latymer, we run a student bursary club called Raise – financial aid matters a lot to students too, and they are well aware that some of their best friends wouldn’t be at the school if it wasn’t for financial aid. 

What about families who run into financial difficulties after their child has started at the school? Is there support for them too? 

Once a pupil is part of the Latymer family, we would never want to lose them for financial reasons. We know that people go through all sorts of ups and downs in the course of their lives, and the school is always here to help. As an example, when the pandemic first hit in March, we quickly put together an emergency bursary fund to help families who had taken a significant financial hit.  

What sort of support do you offer families going through the bursarial process? How do you help children fit into an environment that might be totally alien to them? 

We are on a real drive to make the bursarial process less daunting – and a lot of London schools are going out of their way to build bridges and engage with families long before they might even be thinking about applying. 

At Latymer, from the moment of application, our admissions team is there to hold families’ hands through the process. That might mean helping them fill out application forms, supporting them with advice, check-ins, home visits – so by the time we reach the offer stage, we already know the family incredibly well. We have someone within our admissions team whose job it is to be the first point of contact – say if a parent needed help with extras like uniform, trips or music lessons. The admissions team coordinates closely with the pastoral team too, to make sure pupils feel welcome and integrated. 

It can be hugely intimidating for parents to attend school social events, but we do everything we can to make them feel welcome and part of our community. Given how many of our pupils are on a bursary, they certainly won’t feel unusual or left out here.

Tell us a bit about what Latymer is doing 

Latymer was founded in the 17th century to educate ‘eight poore boyes’ of Hammersmith – and social mobility is built into our foundation story. We want to be seen as a school that’s very much open to people from all walks of life – and that’s what keeps us grounded and makes us more diverse and interesting as a community. By 2024, our 400th anniversary, one in four pupils at the school will be supported by a means-tested bursary.

Bursaries can help close the ‘disadvantage gap’ that has, sadly, widened because of the pandemic: OECD research shows that where disadvantaged pupils can attend advantaged schools, the effect size is equivalent to 2.5 years of schooling. Bursaries help the school to be the best and truest version of itself, bearing in mind its history as a direct-grant grammar school. As the first member of my family to do A-levels or go to university, our bursary programme also resonates strongly for me personally.

Like me, many of our families weren’t independently educated themselves – and they certainly don’t want their children to be part of a ‘privileged or gated community, isolated from the real world’. We want to do as much as we possibly can to help families access a Latymer education – regardless of financial means.