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Where charity begins

The past week has seen another media sortie into the long debate over the charitable status of independent schools in Scotland.

In part, the coverage has been prompted by the debate south of the border over the extent to which independent schools can, and should, assist with the creation and governance of free schools and academies.

As ever, the situation is rather different here, given that no such policy exists. Nevertheless, large numbers of independent school teachers assist with the design of the new curriculum and qualifications and all schools in Scotland operate under the same inspectorate where best practice across the sectors can be measured and compared.

However, the main impetus for last week's coverage was the "revelation" that registered charities receive some mandatory relief from non-domestic rates (NDR). The comparison was made between independent schools, as charities, being charged rates at a charity level, while state schools pay full rates. It was troubling that none of the commentators chose to mention that schools in Scotland are held to a strict test of their public benefit to remain on the charity register and thus receive that relief.

The Charities (Scotland) Act was passed - after much vigorous and lively debate - through the Scottish Parliament in 2005, and independent schools are treated as the highest priority in Scotland for testing under that law. As TESS regulars will be aware, the test of public benefit is considerably more robust than the equivalent elsewhere in the UK, because the Act makes specific reference to the possible barrier to access that fees and charges might create, and the test requires that any such barrier be mitigated. That mitigation, through financial assistance and other public benefit, far outweighs any rates relief that independent schools receive.

Financial assistance to this end, the majority of which is now means- tested, was in excess of pound;30 million last year alone. Specific information on the level of means-tested assistance was sought for, but not used in, the recent articles. Without charitable status, which in many cases derives from the school's initial conception, schools would be under no obligation to spend any fee income on any access measures. Equally, independent schools are run and maintained entirely from fee income from parents of more than 30,000 pupils, parents who also pay their national and council taxes.

Rates relief is offered to all registered charities in Scotland - many of which charge fees. Schools work hard to meet the public benefit test process because of their charitable purpose, the advancement of education. That purpose is a matter of history and of definition, not a financial concern. For every school, education comes first.

John Edward, director, Scottish Council of Independent Schools.

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