Charitable status of Fettes College and St George’s School at risk

Fettes failed the charity test

Fettes failed the charity test

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TWO of the city’s private schools have been given 18 months to assist with “unduly restrictive” fees or risk losing their charitable status.

St George’s School for Girls in Edinburgh and Fettes College, which was attended by ex-Prime Minister Tony Blair, failed Scotland’s charity test.

The Scottish Charity Regulator announced its decisions on 13 of 40 fee-charging schools whose charitable status it is currently reviewing as a “priority group” for assessment by next summer. The Regulator assessed the schools under the charity test.

As well as the two Edinburgh schools, St Columba’s School in Kilmacolm, Inverclyde, failed the test.

The Regulator’s view in each case was that insufficient measures had been taken to provide assistance in respect of high school fees, or to otherwise widen the access to the benefit they provided.

The charity test sets the standard that all charities must meet in providing public benefit. Where there are conditions on the public gaining access to the benefit, such as fees or charges, charities must take steps to ensure these are not “unduly restrictive”.

The schools have been given until July 31 2014 to ensure that they meet the charity test.

In 2008, Merchiston Castle School found itself in a similar position but was later able to meet the charity test by changing the way it funded financial support.

If the schools were to be struck off the register of charities, they would no longer be exempt from tax.

Anne Everest, Head of St George’s School for Girls, where the average senior boarding school fee is more than £22,000 per year, said the school is and will remain a charity.

“We were very disappointed by OSCR’s (Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator) decision, given the extensive range of partnerships and work with the community that St George’s undertakes,” she said.

“We were confident in our provision of public benefit when OSCR started assessing us. We are committed to providing means-tested bursaries whenever we can, and we shall continue to support education in the community.

“We shall look carefully into OSCR’s report with a view to meeting the public benefit test as soon as possible.”

Meanwhile Michael Spens, below, Headmaster of Fettes College, where a senior boarding fee will set parents back more than £27,000 per year, said: “Although OSCR acknowledges the valuable public benefit we already provide, they have identified improvements they wish to see implemented. We are naturally disappointed by this but strongly believe that we can satisfy the requirements of their charities test within the prescribed timescale.”

The announcement was part of the charity regulator’s ongoing programme of reviews of charitable status, focusing on “priority groups” where there may be uncertainty about whether the charity test is met.

Chief Executive David Robb said that the process was ultimately aimed at maintaining public confidence in charitable status by ensuring that Scottish charities met the required standard.

Among the ten schools to pass the test were Belhaven Hill in East Lothian, Clifton Hall School at Newbridge and Edinburgh Steiner.

The report on Fettes College stated that although the school offered means-tested assistance to those who were unable to pay the full fees, the proportion of its income committed to such assistance – seven per cent – and the number of the school roll who benefited, 9.6 per cent, was insufficient to mitigate the level of fees charged in 2010-11.

It was a similar story in the report on St George’s School for Girls where, although the charity offered means-tested assistance, it committed only 4.3 per cent of its income to such assistance in 2011-12. This assistance benefited 12.4 per cent of the main school roll – 97 pupils – but the charity’s main focus was on lower-value bursaries.

Scottish Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary, MSP Hugh Henry, said: “If these schools cannot show they are providing the public benefit which the legislation requires, then the Scottish Charity Regulator must act to remove their charitable status.”

laura.cummings@edinburghnews.com