Commission chief caves in to pressure from private schools

Dame Suzi Leather gives heads five years to prove they deserve charitable status
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Dame Suzi Leather, chairwoman of the Charity Commission, has finally caved in under intense pressure from the headteachers of Britain's private schools, allowing them five years to put their houses in order if they fall foul of new legislation threatening their charitable status.

Dame Suzi was seeking to soothe headteachers' fears that new public benefit tests – designed to ensure their schools do not exclude children from poorer homes – would lead to widespread closures.

She told the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference (HMC), which represents 250 of the country's leading independent schools, that none of them were likely to face an assessment during the next year as the commission did not have an inspectorate at its disposal and had 180,000 charities to assess.

However, her attempts to explain that schools could pass the test by offering "benefits in kind" – such as providing struggling state schools with teachers of shortage subjects – rather than bursaries were greeted with derision and laughter.

Moments earlier, Christopher Ray, high master of Manchester Grammar School, had read a long list of public benefits provided by the school which had been judged not enough on their own for the school to pass the test.

He said teachers at the school "felt they were banging their heads against a brick wall" trying to convince commissioners of the benefits it provided. The school eventually passed the test because of the bursaries it offered.

Martin Stephen, high master of St Paul's in London, argued that private schools were providing public benefit by propping up universities. A recent report published by the HMC revealed that the schools supplied 40 per cent of all undergraduates in vital subjects such as languages and science.

Dame Suzi was addressing the conference in Liverpool after its chairman, Andrew Grant, the headmaster of St Alban's School in Hertfordshire, had likened the new laws to Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries in 1539. Schools set up as charities would forfeit their land if their status was withdrawn.

She offered the prospect of more talks with independent schools over the new legislation and said: "We recognise developing partnership activities or building up a bursaries fund will take time. We also recognise that in the current economic climate it is more difficult. We know you can't pull a rabbit out of a hat."

Responding to Dame Suzi's speech, Mr Grant welcomed what she had to say about the five-year breathing period and the frequency of assessments, adding: "I think we would all feel she was as reasonable and conciliatory as she was allowed to be."

In effect, the announcement means no school will lose its charitable status until well into the next parliament. If they gain power, the Conservatives are likely to interpret the new legislation less strictly. In addition, the Charity Commission is committed to a review of the new legislation in 2011.