Bursary Foundation: the Manchester charity helping get disadvantaged youngsters into top private schools

The charity is celebrating four years in which more than 100 youngsters have been helped to achieve their educational dreams.

A charity is celebrating four years of working with children from disadvantaged backgrounds to help them get into Greater Manchester’s top private schools.

The Bursary Foundation was founded by former primary school teacher Jenny Hopkinson and provides tutoring for youngsters in underprivileged parts of Manchester and Salford to encourage them to take the entrance exams required by the city-region’s grammar and independent secondary schools.

Jenny, who is originally from Altrincham, was inspired by her own experience of being able to go to a fee-paying school and wanted some of the clever and academically-able children she taught to receive the same benefits. However, she realised that for many of them achieving their full potential in the classroom would be impossible without a major helping hand.

She spoke to ManchesterWorld about how in its first four years The Bursary Foundation has supported more than 100 youngsters in Manchester and Salford and is raising aspirations and encouraging children across the city to reach for the very top.

How did Jenny found The Bursary Foundation?

Jenny was teaching in inner-city Manchester when the idea for The Bursary Foundation began to take shape in her mind. She described how she began thinking of the academic environment she was able to access as a pupil at Withington Girls’ School in Fallowfield and how many of her pupils would also thrive there but had no opportunity of getting in.

She said: “I was teaching and came across pupils who were extraordinarily bright and had lots of potential, who were articulate and curious about the world, but very much felt they didn’t have the same educational opportunities I benefitted from. I had a brilliant time at Withington and felt it set me up for life beyond school.

“I talked to them about sitting the exams to get into private schools and they turned round and said those schools weren’t for kids like them. It was the same when I spoke to parents. I would ask at parents’ evenings if they had thought about applying to somewhere like Manchester Grammar and they would give the same response. They would say their child would go to the local high school. The opportunity just wasn’t on their radar.

Jenny Hopkinson founded The Bursary Foundation to get young people from low-income backgrounds into independent schools

“I did some tutoring with one particular girl and worked with her family on the idea of having a go at the exams. She got a full bursary to Withington and she is now thriving.

“I had this itch to scratch about pupils who weren’t accessing bursary funding. I told Manchester Grammar, which has a long history of social mobility, I wanted to start a charity to identify pupils who could get bursaries and I spent about a year doing research and talking to people before launching a pilot scheme in 2018.”

How did the charity develop and what does it now do?

In its first year, The Bursary Foundation worked with 20 pupils from very disadvantaged parts of the city and got 10 of them into grammar or independent schools.

The charity goes into schools in the least-affluent parts of the city and works with promising pupils on an intensive and rigorous curriculum with tutoring in English, maths and verbal and non-verbal reasoning. Jenny spoke of her gratitude to Bond, part of Oxford University Press, which provides the pupils with books and online learning resources they need to sit exams like the 11 plus.

The Bursary Foundation has got dozens of pupils into top fee-paying secondary schools

The charity also provides extensive mentoring, ensuring that both families and pupils are well prepared for sitting the exams selective schools require and filling out the complicated bursary application forms. It also ensures the children are supported as they make the transition to high school and embark on secondary education in a very different environment and checks in with families to see how they are getting on. Later on, the charity works with pupils on work experience opportunities and university visits.

In four years just over half of the pupils the charity has worked with in Manchester and Salford have taken up places at grammar or independent schools. The Bursary Foundation is also planning to expand its work into Trafford, helping children eligible for pupil premium funding gain access to the high-flying private schools on their doorsteps in the borough.

Why does The Bursary Foundation do this work?

Jenny says The Bursary Foundation is on a mission to close up the gaps between the state and independent schooling sectors and to improve social mobility by ensuring more young people from low-income backgrounds get the education they deserve that will help them to excel in the future.

She said: “There is a frightening inequality of opportunity in our country, and we are wasting talent – at the Foundation, we want to connect children, irrespective of family circumstance, with their brightest possible futures. The gap in achievement between disadvantaged primary school pupils and their advantaged peers has reached a 10-year high, which means it’s more vital than ever that we continue our crucial work mitigating the education gap. Without structured support, these pupils often don’t get a look in when measured against their more affluent counterparts.”

It has been argued that grammar schools and private schooling in general maintain inequality and prevent social mobility even if a lucky few pupils get in from lower-income backgrounds, but Jenny says clever youngsters with academic potential need help to achieve what they can now rather than having to wait until sweeping reforms are brought in.

Founder Jenny Hopkinson says The Bursary Foundation is about helping youngsters achieve their full potential

She said: “As it stands independent schools aren’t going anywhere, so we have to make them more meritocratic and fairer. We can’t fix the system, we have to work with what we’ve got. It’s the only thing we can do to make it fairer now.”

Jenny says The Bursary Foundation’s work is also motivated by a combination of bringing opportunities to children and families whose futures are otherwise very constrained and by her own knowledge of the sort of learning environment top private schools can foster.

She said: “This is about choice. The children we work with don’t have choice. Families who can afford to take advantage of the best of the state sector have a choice. If you’re stuck in an area where the local high school is failing you have no choice.

“There’s one school in Newton Heath we work with and they’ve never had so many pupils wanting to sit the 11 plus. In little pockets we’re raising aspirations in a big way. Word is getting round the playground that so-and-so has gone off to a big private school and they now want that for their child too.

“In a private school you are surrounded by like-minded learners and it can be a brilliant environment to thrive. It’s not necessarily just academic but extra-curricular interests which have space and time to be nurtured. That can be life-transforming. There are also alumni networks that can inspire and motivate pupils. Just setting foot in the door of some of thee schools you feel it in the walls that this is somewhere people are going to aim high.”

What else has been said about The Bursary Foundation’s work?

Jenny says the response to The Bursary Foundation’s work has been positive within the independent sector, which she says is feeling under increasing amounts of pressure to tackle social mobility and take pupils from diverse backgrounds. Across the sector as a whole, Jenny says, only around 1% of independent school pupils are currently eligible for free school meals.

Parents who have worked with the charity have also been keen to share their experiences. One parent, who now has two children on full bursaries, said: “The foundation has set a high standard of learning ability for my children and has given them the platform that they can be the best regardless of any barrier posed against their education. The Bursary Foundation has helped my family to break the financial barrier that could have prevented my children to have good and quality education they deserve.”