For months, independent schools have been on a PR offensive, anxious to highlight the benefits that they provide to local communities: the clubs for primary pupils, the outreach schemes with nearby comprehensives or the swimming pool open to the public on Saturdays.
But, this week, their worst fears were realised. The Charity Commission chose to ignore the clubs, schemes and pools, and to focus instead on the hard cash.
In its first reports on five schools, the commission seems to have judged them solely on how many means-tested bursaries they provide.
Under new legislation, independent schools must prove they serve the public benefit in order to retain charitable status worth around Pounds 100 million in tax breaks every year.
Five schools were assessed by the commission in trial inspections, prior to all schools being judged over the next 18 months.
Three of the schools were deemed successful, but two - Highfield Priory, in Lancashire, and S. Anselm's, in Derbyshire - were told they must increase the amount of money they spend on free places or risk losing their charitable status.
The commission said that Highfield Priory, which offers no means-tested bursaries, did not target its charitable benefits appropriately. The school "does not ensure that people in poverty are not excluded from the opportunity to benefit".
It also concluded that S. Anselm's "is not currently operating for the public benefit". The school only provides two means-tested bursaries.
The commission said: "Hosting sports tournaments with state schools and making facilities available to youth groups provide potential opportunities to benefit for those unable to afford the fees . but in the context of the core service provided by the charity, they could not on their own be regarded as sufficient."
But independent-school leaders have condemned the reports. David Lyscom, chief executive of the Independent Schools Council, pointed out that many independent schools have established partnerships with nearby comprehensives, sharing teacher expertise and facilities.
"The commission has been saying all along that it will be looking at means-tested bursaries, but also at schools' interaction with local communities," he said. "They're not doing what they said on the tin.
"And they're ignoring wider public benefits: the Pounds 3 billion that the Government doesn't have to spend educating the 460,000 children in schools that are charities. And the fact that these schools are keeping alive subjects like modern languages, advanced maths. What part of `public' and what part of `benefit' they're not getting, we don't know."
Jill Berry, president of the Girls' Schools Association, said many schools would only be able to increase bursaries by increasing fees.
"If we have to increase fees unreasonably, then we're going to lose children who aren't eligible for bursary support but are struggling to balance the books," she said.
The commission denied that it based its judgments solely on bursaries. A spokeswoman said: "Although fee reductions are an obvious way of making the services of a fee-charging charity more widely accessible, they are not the only means of achieving this. "We have not taken, and will not take, a `one size fits all' approach."
The two schools that failed the test will not immediately lose charitable status. Instead, the commission will work with governors to increase the amount of money spent on bursaries. The governors must then confirm within three months that they will address the areas of concern, then draw up a plan of action within nine months.
But Andrew Grant, chair of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference, pointed out that many small schools would struggle to meet the commission's demands.
"It's difficult to escape the sense that the commission is politicised," he said. "The law is being made by an unelected quango."
Examples of what the Charity Commission noted at the five inspected schools:
To meet the public benefit requirement, the organisation must meet two principles:
- there must be an identifiable benefit or benefits
- benefit must be to the public, or section of the public
The primary benefit is the provision of education to pupils at the school. Additional benefits include:
- links with schools overseas (Manchester Grammar)
- a range of extra-curricular activities, including design, karate and chess clubs (Highfield Priory)
- fundraising activities carried out by pupils for the benefit of local charities (S. Anselm's)