Widen access or lose status

31st October 2008 at 00:00

Private schools which fail to offer sufficient numbers of bursaries to pupils who cannot afford their fees are jeopardising their charitable status, the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator has warned.

Simply awarding scholarships for sporting prowess or academic merit would not meet the public benefit test, it became clear this week as OSCR announced that four of Scotland's leading independent schools could lose their charitable status because their fee-charging structures were deemed "unduly restrictive".

Hutchesons' Grammar in Glasgow, Merchiston Castle in Edinburgh, Lomond School in Helensburgh and St Leonards in St Andrews now have 12 months to show the charities regulator how they plan to widen access to their schools. They will then have a further two years to implement the changes.

Failure to do so could cost the four schools their charitable status and the thousands of pounds in tax breaks it brings.

Jordanhill School's charitable status also hangs in the balance, but for different reasons. The Glasgow school, which is the only non-specialist state school in Scotland directly funded by the Government, has, like further education colleges before it, fallen foul of the rule which stipulates that charities must be independent of government. OSCR has allowed two years for the situation to be remedied.

A total of 12 independent schools have been reviewed by OSCR, which was set up in 2006 to tighten up control of charities in the wake of several high-profile scandals involving cancer charities. A further 40 schools have still to be investigated.

Prince Charles's alma mater, Gordonstoun School in Moray, has the highest fees of any school investigated so far. But with 13 per cent of pupils (80 individuals) receiving means-tested support totalling more than Pounds 1 million, it passed the charity test. OSCR concluded "high impact" arrangements were in place to "facilitate access".

The Glasgow Steiner School and Donaldson's School (for the Deaf) in Linlithgow also passed, as did Regius Christian School, George Heriot's School and St Mary's Music School, all in Edinburgh.

Those who failed to pass the public benefit threshold were the least supportive of families who would struggle to afford their fees.

Last year, Lomond School offered means-tested support to just two pupils; St Leonards offered support to three. Hutchesons', on the surface, appeared to have been more generous, having offered support to 45 pupils unable to afford its fees. These pupils, however, were too few in number (2.6 per cent of the roll) "given the size of the school", according to OSCR.

Merchiston Castle offered support to over 40 per cent of its 438 pupils on the basis of criteria such as sporting or academic ability, but crucially only 16 pupils (3.7 per cent of the school roll) were offered means-tested places, OSCR found.

"The higher the cost of fees, the more targeted access and support we are looking for," explained Jane Ryder, OSCR chief executive.

The headteacher of St Leonards, Michael Carslaw, said he was "greatly disappointed" by OSCR's decision. Fees at St Leonards had been reduced to increase access and an assisted places scheme introduced, he said. He also accused OSCR of being "neither clear nor particularly forthcoming in explaining where the bar is set".

Ms Ryder argued its guidance to schools had been comprehensive and that revised, more user-friendly guidance on "meeting the charity test" had been issued.

Ken Greig, head of Hutchesons', argued the school had always awarded a substantial number of means-tested bursaries.

The head of Merchiston Castle, Andrew Hunter, said moves had already been made to widen access. Former pupil Lord Laidlaw had provided a fund of Pounds 1 million for talented boys unable to afford the fee, he said, and the school planned to increase the number of means-tested scholarships and bursaries available.

Angus Macdonald, Lomond School's headteacher, said his school would also be increasing the number of bursary pupils.

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