Editorial: The battle over the playing fields of Eton

Next week the Charity Commission will issue a document called Consultation on Draft Public Benefit Guidance, writes Third Sector editor, Stephen Cook.

It replaces its publication RR8, The Public Character of Charity, and has been revised in the light of the requirement in the new Charities Act that all charities, including those that in the past enjoyed the presumption that they operated for the public benefit, must from now on be able to demonstrate that they do provide public benefit.

It's an important juncture, because it brings us a step closer to the time when the public benefit provided by fee-charging charities will at last be put to the test. Because of the debate and controversy during the passage of the act, the commission has decided that those charities will be first to face the test, and has already been conducting what it calls "research exercises". The spotlight is swinging towards those uniquely British institutions referred to variously as public, private, independent or fee-paying schools.

When it gets there, what will it reveal? Our straw poll this week of the 12 most academically successful fee-paying schools suggests a mixed bag. There is clearly a conscientious effort by some of them to respond to public and parliamentary disquiet about charitable reliefs for expensive schools, and to do more to justify them. Indeed, some of the best-known schools seem well ahead of the game. Others seem barely to have public benefit on their radar.

A third group does not judge it worth responding to media inquiries, so the position of those schools remains a mystery. No doubt they'll be happy to tell the commission.

But the commission is not in an enviable position. The public schools lobby, after all, is riding high. With the help of the Government and various allies, it has seen off a feeble parliamentary challenge to its £100m worth of tax breaks, and the commission probably holds few terrors for it. One big law firm has told its clients that most independent schools need only "make a bit more noise" about certain activities to pass any public benefit test.

How tough will the commission try to be? Perhaps it will implement Dame Suzi Leather's suggestion last year that fee-paying schools should account for things in a fairly straightforward way - perks on one side, benefits to the community on the other. Some interesting times, and maybe some battles, lie ahead.

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