A tory government would hold immediate talks with the Charity Commission to persuade it to soften its line on reviewing independent schools' charitable status, the party pledged last night.
It would want the Commissioners to adopt a broader vision of what constitutes public benefit, including schemes such as that introduced by St Paul's School for Boys in west London to give maths "master classes" to gifted state school pupils.
Leaders of the independent sector have been incensed that the Commission has focused on whether schools offer bursaries to youngsters from poorer homes when assessing whether they should keep their charitable status.
The first two schools to be told they had failed to meet the new standards for retaining their charitable status were both failed on these grounds.
The sector believes it may have a case for a legal action, claiming that the commission may be misinterpreting the legislation that was brought in to ensure charities provide public benefit.
Speaking to The Independent, Michael Gove, the Conservatives' schools spokesman, said: "I know that the independent sector have their concerns about the way it is operating.
"The Charity Commission say the way private schools can demonstrate public benefit is by having more scholarships. I have no objection to that – but I think it is wrong to say that's the only way they can provide public benefit.
"Rather than benefiting a small group of children, why not use their resources to the benefit of a greater number like St Paul's has done?"
His comments come after John Tranmer, chairman of the Independent Association of Preparatory Schools and headteacher of Froebelian School in Leeds, told The Independent that the best New Year gift Mr Gove could give the independent sector was "a new challenge for Suzi Leather". Dame Suzi chairs the Charity Commission.
Mr Gove responded: "I don't want to get into personalities but we do want to talk to people at the Charity Commission about this."
David Lyscom, the head of the Independent Schools Council, an umbrella group representing 1,280 independent schools in the UK and Ireland, said: "If they would look at the partnership side of things, which they had promised to do but haven't, we would have less of a problem. "We're not threatening legal action but we haven't ruled it out."
The independent sector wants to discuss with Mr Gove his plans for independent state schools – which could be run by parents, teachers or faith groups.
It wants existing independent schools to benefit if he creates a new category of not-for-profit independent schools as part of his plans. At the moment, the only option for a school that loses its charitable status is to sell up and close down because its status is tied up in its land.
Mr Lyscom said some schools might be prepared to drop their charitable status if such a "half-way house" existed. "The tax breaks (with charitable status) don't amount to much," he added.Reuse content