INDEPENDENT SCHOOLS in England will have their eyes focused on Scotland this month for a decision on charitable status which could affect the way they operate.
The findings of the Scottish charity regulator will give the first solid indication to schools south of the border about how changes to 'public benefit' tests might be enforced.
Following changes to the law, education is no longer automatically considered a public benefit.
To qualify for collective tax breaks of pound;100 million a year, they will have to offer more places to children from poor families and publish annual reports on what they have done to benefit society.
Decisions made in Scotland are not binding on the Charity Commission for England and Wales. But they will show how tough the new public benefit tests might be.
One of the tests likely to be set by the Charity Commission is the level of means-tested bursaries that schools offer to pupils from lower income families.
Setting a figure as a percentage of overall fees would have the benefit of being easily measurable and judged. But the diversity of the independent sector makes a single target for all a blunt instrument.
David Russell, chief executive of the Bedford Charity (Harpur Trust), which oversees four independent schools including Bedford school, said all schools should be focusing on means-tested benefits. "We are stopping discounts for siblings of current pupils from this September because they are not means tested," he said.
"The circumstances for different schools will vary enormously. Schools that have kept their fees low might not have built up the financial muscle to offer a large number of bursaries."
The Harpur Trust schools are ahead of most others because the trust has carried out a benefit audit for the past three years. It publishes work it has done, such as running video-conferencing sessions with state schools of lectures from Russell group universities.
Offering teaching expertise in subjects such as science, maths and foreign languages, where state schools can struggle to recruit, is likely to be another way independent schools can enhance their claims of public benefit. Research carried out by the Forum of Independent Day Schools (Fids) highlighted the gulf between state and independent schools in the numbers of pupils taking A-levels in traditional academic subjects.
More than a third of pupils at Fids schools, which include some of the biggest day schools in England, are studying A-level maths, compared with fewer than 7 per cent of pupils nationally; in modern foreign languages, it was almost a quarter in Fids schools compared to 4 per cent nationally.
Government figures show that private schools produced 44 per cent of A grade A-levels in French and German last year. In maths, the figure was 36 per cent and in chemistry 37 per cent.
The Fids research also showed that almost all of the schools in the federation have direct links with state primary schools and the majority with state secondary schools.
Pat Langham, president of the Girls' Schools Association, said partnerships are not about telling state school teachers how to teach. Independent as well as state schools benefit from partnerships, she said.
Ms Langham is on the board of the IndependentState School Partnership, which allocates government money to build working relationships between the sectors.
Since the scheme began in 1997, there have been 314 funded partnerships benefiting an estimated 138,000 pupils in 108 local authorities, at a cost of pound;8.2 million.
Ms Langham believes the scheme needs to be better funded.
"The quality of the partnerships has been very high, but given the fact that not all bids can be funded, more money would be welcome," she said.
Partnerships bring new opportunities
Collaboration between independent and state schools in West Yorkshire has reaped benefits for teachers and pupils, according to those involved.
Wakefield girls' high and Queen Elizabeth grammar, both private schools, formed a four-school partnership with King's and Carleton community high in nearby Pontefract in 2005. The state schools have specialist status in science and maths. The partnership has worked together to improve the science and maths curriculum and do science outreach work with local primary schools. They have also developed maths and science masterclasses for pupils wishing to take separate science GCSEs and maths and physics A-levels.
Rob Foreman, head of Carleton community high, said: "There are two sides to it. It is opening up new opportunities for pupils to tackle subjects and build relationships.
"It is also a wonderful opportunity for teachers to work together. The working relationship between the schools is genuinely collaborative. If there were a reluctance on the part of the staff, it just would not work."
The partnership received initial funding from the Ogden Trust and has since secured pound;150,000 from the IndependentState School Partnership.