Free places for needy - or else

9th March 2007 at 00:00
But private schools are certain they can earn their charity tax breaks

INDEPENDENT SCHOOL leaders have said they are confident they can pass new "public benefit" tests, allowing them to keep tax breaks worth pound;100 million a year.

The Charity Commission published guidelines this week calling on private schools to offer more places to children from poor families and to provide annual reports on how they have benefited society. If schools cannot prove they are reaching new benchmarks, they risk losing charitable status and its financial benefits.

The commission warned schools they would not pass the benefit test simply be admitting a token number of less well-off pupils. They should also open their facilities and offer lessons to state school pupils, the guidance said.

Jonathan Shephard, general secretary of the Independent Schools Council, said: "There is nothing in the report to frighten the horses. These are broad principles and most schools are already well-engaged in their communities.

"Offering more bursaries is one answer, but a lot can be done without spending more money. Many of our schools are not well-off and may have to be more imaginative about what they do.

"The majority of schools will be fine, and they've all probably got another 18 months to get their acts together if they haven't already."

The Charities Act, passed in November, removed the presumption that private schools are providing public benefit.

Launching the consultation, Dame Suzi Leather, chair of the Charity Commission, said organisations should look again at what they provide to society.

"We believe every charity should be able to show a real benefit to the public, and that people on low incomes should be able to benefit," she said.

"Those that charge high fees should assess and report the value of the benefit they provide alongside the value of the benefits they receive - including the tax breaks."

Schools that provide expert tuition for pupils with special educational needs will also have to prove they meet the public benefit test. "A school that only benefits more affluent dyslexic pupils would not be considered charitable," the report said.

The consultation, which ends on June 6, will lead to final guidelines in the autumn. This will be followed by pilots schemes to assess how the tests will work in practice.

* www.charity-commission.gov.uk

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