In defence of charity status

22nd April 2005 at 01:00
Charity law reform in Scotland has reinvigorated debate about whether independent schools should qualify. Douglas Blane asks six headteachers how fee-paying institutions that educate the children of a seemingly affluent minority can be serving the public benefit.

In the view of the Inland Revenue, independent schools are entitled to seek charitable status. Over 100 in Scotland currently do so, benefiting from an estimated pound;5 million a year in tax breaks.

Though it may not be obvious that any is an institution for helping those in need, a majority of the public, according to a Scottish Executive consultation exercise, believes independent schools should qualify as charities because they are educational facilities. A sizeable minority disagrees.

The debate about the charitable status of independent schools has been sparked, almost accidentally, by the introduction of a new Bill to regulate charities, which have been hit in recent years by widespread loss of confidence over the destination of donations.

In the Scottish Parliament, a vocal minority of MSPs wants independent schools to lose their charitable status, while the Executive counters that any attempt to use the Charities and Trustee Investment (Scotland) Bill as an opportunity for "some kind of class action against independent schools" will be strongly resisted.

The key test in the Bill, which is expected to pass into law in July and take effect in 2006, will be that charities provide some kind of public benefit. The clear intention is to define this unambiguously to avoid the regulatory mechanism becoming over burdened with appeals.

It is a test that Judith Sischy, the director of the Scottish Council of Independent Schools, believes none of her members needs to fear because all schools contribute to the community. However, behind this confident public face, the schools are a little anxious.

Robert Gordon's College in Aberdeen has 1,500 pupils aged 3-18, including 35 nursery children. "It is a tradition in Aberdeen that Robert Gordon's is open to the community, is part of the community," says Hugh Ouston, the headteacher.

"We are a local institution and have never been regarded as a posh school. Our ethos is very much that of an educational charity. There is a recognition that we are a school that potentially offers access to everyone. Gordon's is a place where a lad o' pairts - or a lass o' pairts - can come and get a good education.

"We do a lot of fund-raising for bursaries and scholarships and are aiming to increase those. Many of our benefactors are former pupils who choose to endow a place at the school.

"Around 220 of our senior school have their fees paid in whole or in part.

These pupils come from the widest possible social background, so that is of great benefit to the community.

"As a pound;10 million business, the school is a major economic benefit to the town. We attract staff for the oil industry and the universities from other parts of the world because they can get their children into Robert Gordon's College.

"We share our facilities as much as possible and our children are out in the community all the time.

"The idea that independent schools are populated by a different species is nonsense. We borrow our children from the community in the morning and we give them back to the community in the evening.

"The test is a bit of a worry, but we approach it with confidence. We know we are an integral part of our community."

George Heriot's School in Edinburgh has 1,605 pupils aged 3-18, including 32 in the nursery. Alistair Hector, the headmaster, defends independent schools, saying: "We cannot be selfish organisations when at the heart of what we do is the education of children.

"We have a very mixed intake. pupils come to us from every postcode in Edinburgh.

"Heriot's came into existence as a charitable foundation and the provision of free education to those who qualify continues. In addition, we have a large number of bursaries and scholarships, and are committed to building up more. We want access to the school to be as open as possible.

"Heriot's has a highly developed voluntary service programme for senior pupils, who befriend and support old folk, homeless people, hospital patients. We have a link with a local family services unit where our pupils work with the children.

"We have a strong commitment to sports, including some, such as rowing, not featured at many other schools. So we are contributing to the development of those sports in Scotland.

"Our fields are home to Heriot's rugby, cricket and hockey clubs, which have their origins as former pupils' clubs but now are open.

"Our performing arts activities look outward. Many of our events take place in venues like the Queen's Hall and Greyfriars Church. Our Christmas concert, a very big charity fundraiser, packs the Usher Hall.

"The old building at Heriot's is an important part of the architectural heritage of Edinburgh and we meet most of the costs of maintenance.

"None of this is new, or a response to the possible withdrawal of charitable status. They are all things the school has been doing, to contribute to the public benefit, for a very long time."

George Watson's College in Edinburgh has a roll of 2,373 pupils aged 3-18, including 84 nursery children.

"Charitable status provides the recognition that we play our part in Scottish education," says the principal, Gareth Edwards. "All the money that comes in is spent on the school or on developing it for the next generation. We are not profit-making and would not want to be.

"The tax breaks are significant, but we give them away and more in subsidised fees. That is very important to us. It is what we have been about for hundreds of years.

"George Watson's is very much a local school. Half our children come from within three miles.

"An important aspect of educating our children is educating them to play their part in the community, to understand their role in society.

"We have a great musical tradition. Our choir groups sing in old people's homes and day centres. We have a musical link with the Royal Blind School, which has benefits for both sets of pupils.

"We have a large number of playing fields, used by the Watsonian clubs.

These are open clubs, so anybody can join and use the facilities. At the request of local schools we make our fields available for sports days.

"Our youngsters do community service as part of the Duke of Edinburgh's Award. Our Secondary 3s go off in May for outward bound activities all over Scotland, with conservation as a prominent element.

"We raise money for local concerns and charities. We don't go shouting it from the rooftops because it's not about self-congratulation. It is a matter of duty. But if we are being criticised as only looking after ourselves, well that is just not true."

St Mary's Music School in Edinburgh is a small specialist school for instrumentalists, composers and singers, with 70 pupils aged 9-19.

"St Mary's regards outreach and community work as very important," says Jennifer Rimer, the headteacher. "We aim to encourage inclusion and extend specialist music opportunities to pupils from other schools.

"Our long established Saturday morning music classes, attended by over 200 local pre-school and primary children, are an important part of our community activities. Senior pupils assist with classes and introduce younger pupils to a range of instruments.

"Our week-long summer courses, with tutors drawn from the school's music staff, are also well established. Intake is non-selective.

"We have a long history of welcoming pupils from other schools to participate in activities like chamber music, orchestras, masterclasses and lectures. We invite pupils from other schools to attend our jazz days and play in our jazz ensembles.

"We liaise with other schools to offer their pupils the opportunity to attend classes, such as A-level music, here.

"We have a busy schedule of concerts throughout Scotland and beyond.

Lunchtime and evening concerts take place in school two or three times a week, with admission open and free. We collaborate with the National Galleries of Scotland on free evening concerts, with performances - some by our own composers - linked to paintings in the galleries. And pupils play for civic occasions and give many concerts for the elderly and for charitable organisations.

"We collaborate with local and national organisations to provide facilities for auditions, open days and rehearsals. In summer we provide accommodation for visiting choirs, chamber ensembles and student groups.

"We collaborate with other music organisations and educate the choristers of St Mary's Cathedral, which is unique in Scotland in maintaining a full choral tradition with over 250 sung services every year."

The High School of Dundee has 1,044 pupils aged 5-18. Its rector, Michael Duncan, says: "I have no problem with indicating why we think we are giving charitable benefit. It focuses our attention on the things that we have been doing.

"Our pupils come from a wide range of backgrounds. We are firmly in the tradition of independent day schools following the Scottish curriculum. We provide young people with an education, then they go out and play their part in society.

"We have a tradition of offering bursaries and four years ago set up a foundation to raise more money. We are keen to help as many pupils as we can. Currently about 15 per cent of the senior school receives financial assistance.

Our former pupils' rugby football club is open, so anyone can join. It has set up the Dundee Eagles to encourage rugby among children, boys and girls, of all ages. We are building a new sports centre which will be used by local groups.

"We make accommodation in school available for charities. Our charities committee organises fund-raising activities year in, year out. Many pupils help out in the community and come up with ideas for charities to support.

"We are the oldest educational establishment in the city, with roots going back to 1239. That unbroken record of providing education makes us very much part of the community.

"As the only independent school in Dundee we contribute to the city's appeal to people coming here from elsewhere.

"I feel very strongly that educating young people is a public benefit. It would be a sad, sad day if the only way you could get your children in here was the size of the cheque you could write."

The High School of Glasgow has a roll of 1,059 pupils aged 3-18, including 53 in the nursery. The rector, Colin Mair, is proud of its history.

"There has been a high school in Glasgow since 1124. With the coming of comprehensive education the only way we could continue was as an independent school. But we carried with us the ethos that youngsters of ability, whatever their means, should be able to achieve their potential.

"Our staff do a lot of work on national exams, and we willingly release them. We take student teachers every year. Financial and other constraints can make these things difficult for other schools.

"We deliver Christmas parcels to old folk. We fund-raise for the children's hospital and for a local home for kids with disabilities. We work with local sheltered housing and with an after-school club for autistic children. Our junior school runs an afternoon of hospitality and entertainment for residents of local care homes.

"As an operating authority for the Duke of Edinburgh's Award scheme, with almost 20 per cent of our pupils involved, we are strongly committed to service to the community.

"Our music groups entertain residents in sheltered housing. We take part in a big choral concert in Paisley Abbey and our saxophone quartet is in great demand. Our music department runs fundraising concerts.

"Our junior school has a charity day every year, while each house in the senior school supports a different charity and holds a full week of fund-raising events.

"Our school premises are used by outside bodies, such as the Girl Guides and the Scottish Association of Teachers of History. Our games hall is hired to the wider community at evenings and weekends, while the sports pitches are used by rugby, hockey and lacrosse clubs open to anyone.

"Concern and consideration for others is very much part of our school ethos."

Scottish Council of Independent Schools,

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