Candid charities deserve praise

19th September 2003 at 01:00
Readers of The Times - though not, oddly enough, of most other newspapers - will have read a great deal this past week about an alleged "price-fixing scandal" at some of England's most famous independent schools.

Fuelled by a seemingly limitless supply of emails between bursars and others, The Thunderer has sought to stimulate reader outrage with a good old-fashioned scoop.

However, the fact that a small number of schools, including Eton and Winchester, are being investigated by the Office of Fair Trading has been public knowledge for three months.

Those schools have been co-operating fully with the OFT. No one has sought to deny that information has been exchanged between some schools; the schools have answered questions on this issue candidly.

That bursars discussed the cost pressures common to their schools was, during the course of the past 12 months particularly, hardly a surprise. As Education Secretary Charles Clarke himself knows, government decisions, including increases in teachers' pay, in employers' contributions to teachers' pensions (up by 50 per cent in one go) and in national insurance contributions, have had serious effects on independent and state school budgets.

The OFT's judgment is awaited with due seriousness by all independent schools. Most ISC schools are charities. Decisions about the fees to be charged are generally taken by individual governing bodies in the light of their particular circumstances.

That they come to individual decisions is demonstrated by evidence from the annual ISC censuses: the range of percentage increases in fees this year is likely to be between 8 and 12 per cent or even higher. How governing bodies go about making those decisions in future may not necessarily change, but will have to be informed by whatever the OFT decides.

But, as charities, those schools will also have to take account of the forthcoming requirement of the Charity Commission to demonstrate that they seek to make provision to help families who cannot afford to pay full fees.

So the "revelation", as part of The Times's scandal story, that schools are themselves initiating discussions about how this can be done, should be cause for commendation, not criticism.

Dick Davison is joint director of the Independent Schools Council information service

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