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29th April 2011 at 01:00
Private schools' public benefit is put to the test

With noticeable pride, Andrew Hunter, head of Merchiston Castle School in Edinburgh, points to the lengthy documents on his school's website - its charity report and audit of activities.

These outline in detail the steps the independent school has taken this session to enhance its charitable work through bursaries, access to its facilities and community outreach.

The annually updated documents are a small part of the changes the school has made in preparation for a review it faces later this year by the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator (OSCR), after failing its first charities' test in 2009.

Following a change in the law and the setting up of OSCR in 2006, independent schools are required to prove that they deserve to remain on the Scottish Charity Register for providing education and a public benefit. Many had previously understood themselves to be charities simply by dint of their foundation centuries ago.

The schools now have to demonstrate that they offer access to pupils from all backgrounds. Because of the high fees they charge, they need to prove that they offer sufficient means-tested support to enable pupils who cannot afford the fees to attend. They also need to show a wider public benefit to other children who are unable to come to the school.

Failing the test could mean loss of charitable status, a privilege that in 2009 was said to be worth an estimated pound;4.5 million to the independent sector in tax rebates. It could also lead to an estimated increase in fees of up to 8 per cent.

The Scottish Council of Independent Schools (SCIS) says that while there are some tax breaks and rates relief, these are not large, and the motivation for schools is ethical, rather than financial.

A pilot round of tests was carried out in 2007, when the High School of Dundee became the first independent school in Scotland to go through the "public benefit" test and pass.

Dr John Halliday, the rector, says the main reason it passed was its extensive provision of means-tested bursaries. "We give out just approaching pound;700,000 a year, out of a turnover of just over pound;9m, to means- tested bursaries. I think we are unusual in the level of support that we provide, and that is a long-standing tradition at the High School."

Merchiston was part of the first round of tests and, together with Lomond School in Helensburgh, St Leonards in St Andrews and Hutchesons' Grammar in Glasgow, it failed to meet the requirements of the regulator.

The schools were warned that they could lose their charitable status and asked to submit plans explaining how they would provide public benefit. Once the plans were agreed by OSCR, they were given until October 2011 to put them into effect. They will then be subject to another assessment.

"We weren't surprised we failed," Mr Hunter says, "because, essentially, we weren't offering enough bursaries. We were offering too many scholarships - in the way schools like this used to do it - and they were not means-tested."

A mere 3.7 per cent of the school's pupils were receiving means-tested support at the time.

The school has risen to the challenge and Mr Hunter believes it is on track to pass in October. He says that while Merchiston has always had a focus on contributing to the community and fulfilling its mission as a charity, the process made them "crystallise" what they were doing.

To be able to provide a larger number of means-tested bursaries, Merchiston has changed its scholarship scheme. Where a scholarship used to bring a financial reward, it is now an "honorary" award, Mr Hunter explains, and any pupil or prospective pupil can apply for means-tested support, regardless of whether they have scholarships or not.

The school is not alone in this. While scholarships have historically been an important way for schools to attract the most talented pupils, the finite nature of funds in a difficult economic climate has led Lomond and St Leonards to revise their scholarship schemes in favour of means-tested bursaries.

At the time they failed the charity test, both schools provided means- tested support to less than one per cent of their pupils, but they have since worked to increase the proportion.

"I am reluctant to quote numbers because it can be very emotive, but by the end of this year, in terms of percentage of revenue, it will be 6 per cent that is dedicated solely to the academic bursary programme," says Peter McElwee, bursar at Lomond School.

"We started from a base of zero back in 2006, which is when we started working on this, and we have ramped it up very gradually since then."

Similar changes have been implemented at St Leonards. Headteacher Michael Carslaw says the school has changed its policy on fee assistance and almost all fee reductions now require means-testing, where previously scholarships based on ability and talent were available. "We have also increased access to the number of pupils coming to the school on means- tested bursaries," he adds.

In addition to widening access for less privileged pupils, the schools have introduced a variety of initiatives and projects to provide the "public benefit" OSCR is looking for. They all provide access to their grounds and facilities to local state schools, and school staff run lessons in sports or subjects less widely available in local authority schools.

Once a week, Merchiston staff provide swimming lessons to children from council-run primaries. The school has also maintained its focus on work in the community, and senior pupils can volunteer to be trained as mentors and counsellors by the charity Place2Be.

"They then go out into the primary schools," says Mr Hunter. "Rather charmingly, the phrase that is used for the scheme in all the schools is `Merchiston Big Friends'. The idea behind it is that Merchiston believes in providing good male role models, and sometimes the little children whom they are helping may not have a male role model in their life."

A new initiative trialled this year was the boys' community choir, where boys from local primaries visit the school on Friday afternoons, are provided with lunch and activities and have the chance to sing in a choir.

At Lomond School, a "last choir standing" competition has been launched, where children from local schools arrive at the school, are mixed in with children from other schools to form a new choir, and perform in a competition, having had an hour to practise a song with a singing coach.

The school has also opened up its sports hall to local junior schools, and pupils receive weekly PE lessons from Lomond staff. Funding has been committed for a further five years to the annual triathlon, the Lomond Challenge.

St Leonards has also added to projects aiming to benefit local children. It is currently rolling out a programme where local primary schools visit the room that Mary, Queen of Scots stayed in when she visited St Andrews - today part of the school library. "They get about a morning's worth of activities about the history and art, a cross-curricular morning in the school," Dr Carslaw explains.

The independent schools sector as a whole has made changes in preparation for future assessment. This year, figures from SCIS show pound;32m was spent on bursaries by its member schools, compared to pound;24m last year, a rise of 33 per cent; two years ago, it was just pound;17m.

SCIS says almost a quarter of pupils now receive some level of fee support and the number of pupils on fully-funded places has risen by 45 per cent.

John Edward, director of SCIS, stresses the sector's diversity, pointing out that while some schools have benefactors and large legacies to draw upon, other newer schools are often reliant on fee income for their bursary provision.

Schools feel strongly about retaining their charitable status, he says; it is part of their identity and ethos as providers of education, and none of them has seriously considered dropping it.

Mr Hunter agrees: "We say to ourselves, `Can we give joy to other people through what we are doing?' That is a very objective, dispassionate way of looking at it; we are not looking at how we can score enough points to pass through this hoop."

Critics, however, say the sector, which has a turnover of around pound;200m per year and charges an average termly fee of pound;3,166 per senior day pupil, does not deserve the tax rebates which are part and parcel of charitable status.

John Downie, director of public affairs for the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO), says: "At SCVO we have questioned the extent to which independent schools meet their charitable aims and to what extent they fulfil the criteria of the Charities Act, not just in law but in spirit. We recognise that such schools carry out important work and, on the whole, have a reputation for excellence, and many have strived to improve in key areas such as accessibility.

"However, in a sector where equality, accessibility and support for those in need are inherent to our ethos and values, it is difficult for exclusive institutions such as independent schools to fit in."

He adds that if independent schools want to be a part of the third sector, they need to show a significantly higher proportion of their income going towards charitable aims, including more support for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds.


31,540 - Total number of pupils educated at SCIS schools in 2010-11

4% - Percentage of overall school population

3,655 - Total number of boarding pupils

pound;3,166 - Average termly fee senior day school

pound;8,214 - Average termly fee senior boarding

pound;32m - Total amount of financial assistance provided

Source: Scottish Council of Independent Schools


Megan Hastings, a 15-year-old from Islay, is an S4 pupil on a traditional music bursary at the pound;3,040-per-term Lomond School in Helensburgh. She is currently in her second year at the school, having previously been home- schooled by her mother, who is a teacher.

Megan came across the school's bursary scheme for traditional music online when doing research to decide whether to remain in home schooling or enter the school system. While she was considering attending the local high school on the island, she was searching for a school that would allow her to pursue a career in music.

Her mother, Anita Hastings, says that without the bursary, the family could "plain and simply" not have afforded for Megan to attend the school.

Many of the children at Lomond come from wealthier families, but Mrs Hastings says Megan has never been made to feel any different from them because she is a bursary pupil; the whole family has been welcomed with open arms.

"It is because she has a traditional music bursary, they very much respect her for that. She has never felt looked down upon, which I appreciate sometimes people would worry about. She is very much on a par with everybody else."

Attending Lomond School has given Megan opportunities she may not have had at the local state school, Mrs Hastings says, such as playing hockey on the school team and receiving the regular music lessons that are so essential for her career plans.

Megan has blossomed since starting at Lomond less than two years ago, she says.

"She has fitted into the school so well. She has become more independent than she was, she is more confident. She has very good mediating skills and those have worked well for her. She has still maintained her own person, and Lomond very much encourages the children to be their own person, not to follow everybody else.

"They allow them to have that space. Having regular music lessons has just been the making of her, to be able to have that regular input every week, and to be part of ensembles and orchestras."


State schools have quickly recognised that they can benefit from the independent sector's obligation to provide "public benefit", and many have been seeking to establish ties with their local independent school.

In Glasgow, the council is encouraging its schools to enter into close, meaningful partnerships with their privately-run neighbours.

The idea was initiated by the former council leader, Steven Purcell, in 2009, who said at the time: "This is of benefit to the independent schools, given the pressure they are under from OSCR. With public service budgets coming under intense pressure as the country pays off its deficit, it will have benefits for us too."

Maureen McKenna, the city's head of education, says a number of schools have taken this message to heart, and fruitful relationships have developed, specifically with regards to pupils being able to take Advanced Higher courses at neighbouring schools.

But, she says: "It shouldn't just be focused on Advanced Highers. I would like the partnerships to be more meaningful than that, and that was why I was so delighted when St Roch's Secondary and St Aloysius' College started a partnership that is about young people learning about each other."

Gerry McGuigan, headteacher of St Roch's, says the first year of the co- operation, which began last session, benefited both sides. His school had been unable to offer all the Advanced Highers it wanted, and St Aloysius' had been in the same position, so sharing subject expertise had been an obvious starting point.

"We do Higher ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) here - we have long established this. They don't have that in St Aloysius', but they have some children it might be appropriate for there, so the offer was made that we could do some swaps."

Mr McGuigan says his school has also put significant emphasis on the certification of voluntary work done by its pupils, and it is currently working on assisting St Aloysius' in setting up a similar scheme.

This academic year, the two schools went on a residential retreat together; the St Aloysius' pupils were extremely welcoming to his pupils, Mr McGuigan says.

Despite many of them coming from deprived backgrounds, the St Roch's pupils were confident enough to interact with the St Aloysius' pupils. "Many of our kids do not come from the same background as kids who are paying thousands of pounds for their education, but they are very good at mixing and interacting and they don't have any inferiority complexes."

The two schools also co-operate in sporting activities. "They have better sport facilities," he says, "so we have a small rugby team that goes up to St Aloysius' and we practise and train with them. The kids have been brilliant. Kids are just kids. We have a joint team where they play together, and they are fine."

Although Mr McGuigan has considered whether the schools' relationship had a part to play in St Aloysius' maintaining its charity status, his focus has been on providing the best opportunities for his pupils. "We talked about that and, have I got one or two concerns about it? Possibly. But when I look at the benefit to some of our children, or indeed some of their children, then I think it might be worth it."

John Stoer, headteacher of St Aloysius', agrees that the co-operation has proved beneficial to both sides. It is not motivated by his school's desire to maintain its charitable status, as it is part of the Society of Jesus, a larger trust, he adds.

"We are delighted to work in partnership with St Roch's and hope that our co-operation will benefit pupils and staff from both schools," he says. "Our motivation stems from our desire to work, with others, for the common good, which is intrinsic to our mission as a school."

This term, the two headteachers expect to set out their plans for future co-operation next year.


Original print headine: For the greater good? Charity test awakens spirit of giving

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