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Top private schools fined

Fifty leading private schools have been fined a total of pound;3.5 million after being found guilty of conspiring to fix fees.

The schools, including Winchester, Eton and Harrow, exchanged information over three years to set tuition and boarding charges, contravening competition law.

Each school will pay pound;10,000 and make an ex-gratia payment totalling an additional pound;3m into a new educational charitable trust. The announcement represents the final chapter in an exhaustive investigation, launched in 2003 by the Office of Fair Trading.

The OFT, which has been accused by schools of dragging its heels over the investigation, originally claimed that the "regular and systematic"

exchange of information resulted in schools setting higher fees.

However, that allegation has been withdrawn, with schools insisting that information exchanges were often carried out to keep fee levels at a minimum.

The schools, all of which have charitable status, have said they were unaware that the practice, outlawed under the 1998 Competition Act which came into force in March 2001, applied to them.

The OFT had the power to fine the schools up to 10 per cent of their annual turnover, worth about pound;3m each to larger boarding schools.

The Independent Schools Council, which led negotiations on behalf of the schools, has agreed a compensation package, allowing each school to pay Pounds 10,000, with an additional payment, based on fee income in 20034, being made into a new educational charity. It will result in an average pay-out of some pound;60,000 per school, payable over three years.

The money will go into a trust, benefiting the estimated 60,000 pupils who attended the schools in question over the three-year scope of the inquiry.

A spokesman for the ISC said pupils will be able to make applications to the trust to fund a series of different educational projects.

The guilty 50

Ampleforth, Bedford, Benenden, Bradfield, Bromsgrove, Bryanston, Canford, Charterhouse, Cheltenham, Cheltenham Ladies, Clifton, Cranleigh, Dauntsey's, Downe House, Eastbourne, Epsom, Eton, Gresham's, Haileybury, Harrow, King's Canterbury, Lancing, Malvern, Marlborough, Millfield, Mill Hill, Oakham, Oundle, Radley, Repton, Royal Hospital, Rugby, St Edward's Oxford, St Leonards-Mayfield, Sedbergh, Sevenoaks, Sherborne, Shrewsbury, Stowe, Strathallan, Tonbridge, Truro, Uppingham, Wellington, Wells Cathedral, Westminster, Winchester, Woldingham, Worth, Wycombe Abbey

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