Private schools should not be charities, says SCVO

Loretto-school-building

Loretto School in East Lothian was one of those to initially fail the charity test, it passed in 2014.

Scottish charity law should be reviewed in light of the private school problem, membership body SCVO tells the charity regulator

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27th May 2015 by Susan Smith 5 Comments

The charitable status of private schools in Scotland is a problem that highlights the need for a review of charity law, the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO) has said.

The membership body which represents Scottish charities has said the current charity test is too broad and allows bodies which do not provide significant levels of public benefit to become charities.

SCVO made the claim in its response to new Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator (OSCR) guidance on the charity test.

It said the problem of private schools and the growing number of arms-length external organsiations set up by government bodies, such as local leisure trusts, proved that Scotland's ten-year-old charity law should be reviewed.

To attempt to shift the goalposts and propose a move which could only narrow access, and be to the detriment of assisted pupils, is as retrograde as it is poorly-informed - John Edward

“We welcome OSCR’s commitment to maintain a higher vigilance with regard to fee-paying schools but don’t agree that the charity test as it stands is working if it allows schools of this type to have charitable status,” stated SCVO’s response.

“However, we appreciate that this is a complex issue with implications beyond fee-paying schools. The work of the public petitions committee in looking into this is helpful but these issues need further consideration. We hope this can be taken forward as part of a wider review of charitable law as we approach its 10th anniversary.”

The charitable status of fee-paying schools in Scotland has long been an issue of contention. Since 2007, OSCR has reviewed the charitable status of 52 fee-paying schools on the charity register.

Ten failed the test because the regulator believed the fees they paid unduly restricted access to the education the schools provided.

All 10 took action, including increasing bursaries, to meet the test and passed at a later date.

John Edward, director of the Scottish Council of Independent Schools, hit out at SCVO for raising the issue, saying its view was “poorly informed”. He highlighted that OSCR’s review has led to a widening access programme of means-tested fee-assistance that amounts to £29 million each year,  a wider programme of community engagement and shared facilities and staff.

“The SCVO, like any other body in Scotland, is entitled to its view,” said Edward. 

“It is not, and never has been, responsible for deciding what is or is not a Scottish charity, any more than any independent school is.  

“That charity test is tougher than any equivalent in the world, set in place by the Scottish Parliament and overseen by the independent regulator. Almost half of all the charities reviewed in Scotland have been independent schools. 

“To attempt to shift the goalposts at this stage and propose a move which could only narrow that access again, and be to the detriment of assisted pupils attending those schools by choice, is as retrograde as it is poorly-informed. 

“It would contribute nothing more to the other 95% of Scottish schools, or to the advancement of education or, indeed, help anyone to get involved with their communities – as the SCVO wishes – more than they do already. As the facts have changed, so should opinions.”  

The Scottish Parliament’s public petitions committee is currently investigating a petition from campaigner Ashley Husband Powton, which argues that private schools should not be charities.

In its UK parliament manifesto, the Labour Party also said it would look into the charitable status of private schools and suggested there should be much tougher criteria.

27th May 2015 by John

Of course, no-one bothers to describe what - if anything - the "private school problem" actually is, apart from creating strong views in some individuals. Which is why an independent regulator exists to take a holistic view. Hard to believe that, after all these years, there are not bigger and more pressing "problems" in education...

27th May 2015 by Caroline Magoha

I firmly contest this! I am a lone mother of a 12 year old boy with no parental network with very serious health conditions. My son has been my carer since he was 9 yrs old. No charity has ever helped us, not cash for kids, not MacMillan Cancer not Pudsey all to whom we have donated in the past. Just 10 days ago both MacMillan and Cash for Kids denied us help yet again. George Heriot's School on the other hand has changed my son's life. He's been offered a full bursary, he's uniform, meals and bus pass are paid for, his school trips extra curriculum activities and musical lessons and instruments are paid. He has been offered a true opportunity for a better future with no costs whatsoever to the Council who when we have been in need hasn't offered other than tinned beans. The charities you consider better play huge salaries, invest in unethical corporates and DO NOT help those in need. My son's private school does and if it's charity status is withdrawn children like mine will lose all hope because nobody else, not Council not charities give a damn about them. Yours is a position that will harm many children who have only their schools to rely on. I'm alarmed, concerned and sincerely angered because you will ruin my son's future.

27th May 2015 by Douglas J A Roxburgh MBE

Our son attended George Watson's College which not only has charitable status, but has a considerable and unrivalled Family Foundation and Development Organisation that also supports its former pupils and staff. Let's not forget both Watson's and Heriot's history, heritage and roots of helping those in less fortunate circumstances than most of us. So, I agree with Caroline, I have experienced and seen the support that Watson's and independent schools like them have given to their communities in more ways than people realise, also the links that independent and local authority schools have through collaborative projects and resource sharing. In my experience, there is a degree of ignorance here which has to be recognised. I would only agree with the removal of charitable status where independent schools whether they have residential, special or specific educational provision fail to be open and available to community inclusion, collaborative involvement with other educational institutions, youth and business development. Finally, as a former pupil of Watson's our son is recognised as part of the lifelong Watson's Family, and Caroline and will know and experience this after her son's education at Heriot's has ended. All I would ask is this is put into the correct context so all the very best of charitable status is recognised and encouraged, let's not be too hasty in condemnation and be careful what you wish for SCVO.

29th May 2015 by William Douglas

"Scottish charity law should be reviewed in light of the private school problem" says SCVO, without explaining what the problem is! Comparisons are made with state schools, which do not have charity status. But they are fully funded by the state (for state. read taxpayers, including parents of privately educated children), so that problem does not exist. Is the problem that privately educated pupils out perform those in state schools? And is removing the good going to improve the bad? I doubt it.The problem is surely not jealousy?

29th May 2015 by Ken

Regardless of the worthy individual cases mentioned here, it remains baffling why institutions which are not primarily charitable are even considered part of the sector. As a crollary, registered charities themselves run into difficulties if they generate too much of their own income from sales etc so are obliged to set up separate legal entities. The PRIMARY function of private schools is essentially to offer a commercial education service to paying clients so I do not understand why this is not considered as a business, and if they are so motivated they can then set up a charitable wing (or more likely separate legal entity) to cover those activities which are benefitting others, those in need and so on. Virtually every corporation claims to offer some kind of charity so why should one specific sector be excluded. Is it only a problem of definition? The charity definition has been increasingly blurred as a result of spinoffs from the Council (for example Cultural Trusts, Leisure Trust to run services formerly provided by Councils) but it seems hard to justify continuing to include private schools. Finally, I am not entirely sure what financial benefits are gained by being designated a charity - does this relate only to taxation?