The Charity Commission has dismissed the argument that giving bursaries to state school pupils should count against the public benefit provided by private charitable schools in its finalised Public Benefit and Fee-Charging guidance.
During the consultation on the guidance, the Education Review Group, a group of education experts, voluntary sector leaders, academics and lawyers, argued that depriving state schools of their brightest pupils would damage them and should count as a disbenefit provided by independent schools.
But the guidance says arguments about "remote detriment or harm" are not relevant to assessments of whether a particular school delivers public benefit.
The commission document says: "General disagreement with the aims or activities of fee-charging charities in general, or those which carry out particular charitable aims, does not constitute evidence of the existence of detriment or harm arising from the way in which a particular fee-charging charity is advancing its aims."
The guidance also says, however, that decisions on the public benefit of fee-charging organisations will be affected where there is evidence of "significant detriment or harm arising from what a particular organisation does that outweighs the benefits of that organisation carrying out its aims".
It also dismisses the relevance of benefits to "the public at large", such as saving the state money, because they do not amount to "opportunities to benefit in a material way for people who cannot afford the fees". It says opportunities to benefit should be "genuine and meaningful", and must relate to a charity's aims. In practice, it says, this means the opportunity should be "related to the service or facility that is charged for".
It says providing subsidised access to people who cannot afford a charity's fees is the "obvious and simplest" way to show public benefit, but that there is no "one size fits all" threshold of how much subsidised access should be provided. It says case-by-case assessments will depend on local needs, fee levels and the resources at a charity's disposal.
The guidance also warns trustees of private hospitals and care homes not to rely on insurance schemes to demonstrate opportunities to benefit people who cannot afford fees. But it also says high fees would be mitigated if they were paid by a local authority rather than individuals.
New examples of ways to deliver public benefit include:
- Charitable schools working with non-fee-charging schools overseas to "share knowledge, skills and expertise and arrange cultural exchange visits for pupils at both schools
- Charitable medical organisations "developing new technologies and undertaking medical research, the useful results of which are made publicly available"
- Arts organisations offering free tours, lectures, mentoring and networking schemes