Leading Article: Private schools need not fear

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The Independent Online

New guidelines on charitable status issued by the Charity Commission have sent a frisson of fear through Britain's independent schools. In fact, they need not fear. The commission makes it clear that only as a last resort would it act to remove charitable status from any organisation. Indeed, it has given charities a 15-month period before the new law requiring them to show they are of public benefit comes into effect. It has also said it will work with any organisation to show them what they should be doing to retain charitable status.

The most difficult requirement for the independent sector is to show that their schools are of benefit to people in poverty – the phrase used in the guidance. On the face of it, independent schools do not meet this requirement. They are likely to be viewed as a bolthole from the state sector for the rich. Bursaries and scholarships are one way that independent schools can show they are benefiting disadvantaged families – but these cost money and act like a second mortgage on families who pay fees, according to the schools. The cost of a school place has to rise to give schools the revenue they need for bursaries.

Here, again, the commission goes out of its way to help schools by suggesting that it might be enough for them to form a partnership with a state school, providing it with teaching resources or sporting facilities to be used by pupils on free school meals. The devil is in the detail, though, and the independent sector is worried about how some of the guidance will be put into effect. Further advice will be issued next month.

In the meantime, it looks as though the Charity Commission has striven as much as possible to be fair to the independent sector over the way it interprets how charities show they are of public benefit. Independent schools worry that they will receive complaints from the parents of pupils at their schools arguing that they are struggling to pay fees to get a better education for their own children, not to pay for pupils whose parents are unable to send them there. If any parents hold such views, they should reflect on the fact that they are sending their children to schools that are receiving financial aid from the Government as a result of their charitable staus.

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