Charities will have up to five years to improve their public benefit to acceptable levels, according to Dame Suzi Leather, chair of the Charity Commission.
Leather was speaking yesterday at the annual conference of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference, which represents the heads of about 250 independent schools across the UK and the Republic of Ireland.
She said the commission expected a "demonstrable commitment, year on year" to satisfying the public benefit requirement, but did not "inhabit a parallel universe" and accepted that it could take some schools up to five years to reach a satisfactory level.
"We recognise that developing partnership activities or building up a bursaries fund will take time," she said. "We also recognise that in the current economic climate it is more difficult. We know you can't pull a rabbit out of the hat."
Two out of the five fee-charging schools involved in the commission's public benefit assessment exercise earlier this year were deemed not to be providing sufficient public benefit. They were given three months to respond and a further nine to draw up plans to address their failings.
Leather also denied that the commission was obsessed by bursaries. She argued that, in principle, indirect benefits such as allowing local maintained schools access to facilities could be enough to pass the public benefit test.
She invited schools that provided a lot of indirect benefits to help the commission produce best-practice models.
"Assessments will be rare, so collating examples will be an important way of showing that the sector and the commission values other opportunities to benefit," she said.
Leather said the commission had seen no legal argument to make it change its interpretation of the law on public benefit. But she echoed remarks made by Andrew Hind, chief executive of the commission, at last week's annual public meeting of the commission welcoming the prospect of a legal challenge to the commission's interpretation of the law on public benefit.