For many independent schools, provision of bursaries and the social mobility agenda that goes with that are top of the agenda. For some, this is and always has been a moral imperative from their founding aims, to ensure that the education provided at excellent schools is as accessible as possible.
For others, it is a more recent response to considering the proper role of independent schools as a force for good in a modern society, making our schools part of the answer to the questions we all have around a socially mobile society.
Schools can have this impact in a number of ways but they fall into two strands: partnership work and bursary provision. Partnership work could be characterised as making a small, yet important, difference for many people and seeking leverage through working with other schools, who then magnify the impact of any partnership work. For bursary provision, the impact on an individual is enormous but there will inevitably be a smaller number involved.
“How schools attract the widest possible pool of bursary applicants is enormously important.”
The impact of bursary provision on society is, of course, for the individuals who benefit from a first rate education by being awarded a bursary. More than that, it is the multiplier effect of that individual living their life with the intent to do good, perhaps not explicitly articulating this but taking the values of their school into a workplace and community and making a difference.
For this reason, how schools attract the widest possible pool of bursary applicants and how they assess and award bursaries is enormously important.
So how do you get the widest possible pool of bursary applicants? As ever, it is important to come at this question from the point of view of the applicant rather than the point of view of the school.
A school may feel that they have the best advertisements and literature about bursaries they can have but if it is not being read or seen by those who should apply then it is all to no avail.
So is your advert in the right place (many schools have had success using adverts on public transport) and does it have the right message – which is “don’t rule yourself out, come along and see”? So many decide that our schools are not for them without ever visiting or consciously thinking about it.
“A school may have the best adverts but if they are not being read by those who should apply then it is all to no avail.”
It may be they think they are not clever enough. More difficult is those who feel, for a whole variety of unarticulated reasons, that our schools are not for people like them. This could be old style class structures or perhaps a lack of obvious role models around different races and gender identification.
The solutions are to do all a school can to get pupils from primary schools through the doors to meet current pupils, to see role model pupils like them and to feel that the atmosphere is perhaps not at all what they imagined.
Even such primary liaison programmes and far-reaching advertising may not be all that is needed. If the bursary applicants we are seeking are not coming to us schools need to go to them. These young people may be at youth clubs, community and religious centres; they may be at sports clubs. Reaching out and using pupils to connect to people of much the same age to enthuse about their school is essential.
But once they apply how do we assess? There are some obvious issues. Most schools do now assess for aptitude and potential and this is clearly essential for bursary applicants who will not have been prepared and will not have had a tutor. Making sure the exam is inclusive is probably the easy bit.
“Making sure the exam is inclusive is probably the easy bit.”
Schools must also assess their interview process. Do the questions asked imply a way of thinking about things, language or a hinterland of experience that a bursary applicant simply will not have? We cannot and should not interview to establish whether a bursary candidate has “middle class” cultural capital. Perhaps better is to establish the values and character attributes that would make a bursary applicant successful and then interview for those in as open a way as possible. This is what we now do at Bolton School and the first cohort interviewed in that way will soon take A-levels.
If the bursary programmes are to influence social mobility, reaching out as widely as possible and then making sure selection processes are fit for purpose lie at the heart of the next steps for many schools.