When financial aid is not enough charity

The Scottish Council of Independent Schools has fought hard to defend the charitable status. In law, bodies which exist for the advancement of education are charitable, and that has not changed. What has changed is the introduction of a public benefit test which schools (like all other charities) have to pass.

In the case of schools, the public benefit test focuses largely on whether there is any unduly restrictive condition inhibiting access to the benefit provided. Charities are allowed to charge fees but, if the fees are high, they are required to satisfy the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator that they are taking steps to overcome this restriction by, for example, providing financial assistance and benefits to the wider community.

The level of financial support which the sector currently gives to parents to help them access independent education is over Pounds 17.3 million. Charitable status is fundamental to our ethos. We take our responsibilities as charities seriously.

Although charitable status gives around Pounds 4.5 million a year to the independent sector, our schools educate almost 32,000 pupils, which saves the public purse an estimated Pounds 165 million a year. Add to this the funds distributed in financial assistance, such as mean-tested bursaries, and the sector saves the country nearly 40 times as much as it receives in financial benefits.

We feel that, while six schools have passed the OSCR's charity test, its report is tough on the other four. They have been given time to improve but, as your report last week on St Leonards School in St Andrews (above) highlighted, what they are expected to do is still unclear.

We hope that the OSCR will provide guidance and bear in mind each school's circumstances. The schools will be conscious of their responsibilities to their present pupils, especially in the current economic climate, and balancing this with meeting the public benefit test may not be easy. They are all good schools, with charitable traditions and a strong sense of social responsibility, and they deserve to remain on the charity register.

Judith Sischy, director, Scottish Council of Independent Schools.

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