'It's not about money, but ethics'

7th November 2008 at 00:00
Charitable status depends on means-tested support being available to prospective pupils, but how much is enough?

The head of an independent school whose charitable status hangs in the balance has called for "good, clear guidelines" from the charities regulator about how much support it must give to those unable to afford its fees.

Speaking to The TESS, Michael Carslaw, head of St Leonards School in St Andrews, said the Officer of the Scottish Charity Regulator had made it clear that retaining charitable status depended on the means-tested support available for prospective pupils; he wants to know how much.

"It would be enormously helpful to know what is acceptable in OSCR's eyes," he said. "We don't know where the bar is set, whether it's 8, 9 or 10 per cent (of the roll)."

Last week, St Leonards was told, along with three other independent schools, that it stood to lose its charitable status after its fee-charging structures were deemed "unduly restrictive".

In its report, OSCR found that St Leonards, which charges more than Pounds 9,000 a year to educate a secondary day pupil, had "very limited arrangements aimed at facilitating access for those unable to pay fees".

Dr Carslaw said he was disappointed that providing a high-quality education was not in itself judged to be of sufficient public benefit.

The school benefited Scotland, he argued, by being one of only three schools offering the International Baccalaureate, attracting pupils from around the world and modelling a different kind of curriculum.

Access had been widened, he felt, by a "significant" reduction in fees in 2005, when they fell by 30 per cent on average. And the school's new assisted places programme, which offered support to only three pupils last year, supported 10 this year.

"Again, it would be helpful for us to establish what the number is that would satisfy them (OSCR)," said Dr Carslaw, who was educated at Merchiston Castle in Edinburgh, another independent school which failed the public benefit test.

It is unlikely, however, that any such figure will be forthcoming. According to OSCR, means-tested support is not the only way of mitigating against restrictions in access, and schools will be viewed "in the round". A spokesperson said: "We are not in a position to say 'X per cent and you'll get through'."

According to the Scottish Council of Independent Schools, charitable status is worth around Pounds 4.5 million a year to private schools, but the schools themselves provide more than Pounds 17 million in support to parents who want an independent education for their children.

However, Dr Carslaw claimed retaining charitable status was not about money at St Leonards, but ethics. The school had an annual turnover of Pounds 6 million and saved Pounds 60,000 through being a charity - a "relatively minor" sum, he said.

"We are not a money-making machine," he said "Everything we make is ploughed back into the school for the benefit of education. To me, that fits more comfortably with a charitable ethos than a commercial one. But all that gets lost in the discussion because of this emphasis on accessibility. I'd love this place to be as accessible as possible, but we are dependent on fee income to support this school."

St Leonards was founded in 1877 by Louisa Lumsden in the belief that "a girl should receive an education as good as her brother's, if not better". Today, it is fully co-educational, serving pupils aged three to 19.

The approach to St Leonards involves no ostentatious gateway or long meandering drive. Instead, a short road leads into a quaint cobbled courtyard. There is, however, nothing ordinary about this school.

Visitors are shown to "the green room" which could pass for the drawing room of any affluent home. Here, it is hard to accept you are actually in a school - noise, bustle and practical, hard-wearing furnishings are conspicuously absent.

Wandering round the grounds, pupils begin to surface, sixth formers dressed in suits and everyone else in uniform. The facilities are impressive. There is the purpose-built music school and the sports pitches with sea views. The school has its own miniature course for budding golfers, tennis and squash courts and a 25-metre swimming pool. Hockey, lacrosse, football, cricket, basketball and rugby are also on offer. It is said that St Leonards was the inspiration for Enid Blyton's Malory Towers.

Unfortunately, reading about that seaside boarding school is as close as most are likely to get to this kind of education.


Figures show total school roll and percentage receiving means-tested support


St Leonards, St Andrews 458; less than 1 per cent

Lomond School, Helensburgh 592; less than 1 per cent

Hutchesons' Grammar, Glasgow 1,750; 2.6 per cent

Merchiston Castle, Edinburgh 438; 3.7 per cent


George Heriot's School, Edinburgh 1,619; under 7 per cent

Gordonstoun School, Moray 595; 13.4 per cent

The Glasgow Steiner School 102; 70 per cent

Regius Christian School, Edinburgh 17; fees are kept as low as possible by using donated and grant income, and keeping costs to a minimum

St Mary's Music School, Edinburgh 71; all pupils received some form of "facilitated access" and 22 per cent were fully funded in 2006-07

Donaldson's School, Linlithgow 67; all pupils had their fees paid by the local authority

Jordanhill School, Glasgow 1,047; no tuition fee is charged.

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