Headmaster calls on Charity Commission to clarify bursary requirements for public benefit

St Anselm's School and Highfield Priory School fail and three schools pass commission's assessment

St Anselm's School, Derbyshire
St Anselm's School, Derbyshire

The headmaster of one of the two schools that failed the Charity Commission's public benefit assessment exercise has called for clearer guidance from the regulator on what level of bursaries is appropriate.

St Anselm's School Trust
and Highfield Priory School were both deemed not to be spending enough on providing opportunities to benefit for people who could not afford their fees.

Simon Northcott, headmaster of St Anselm's, said the school's governors were disappointed to have "fallen short" of the commission's standards. He called on the regulator to clarify what level of bursary provision was acceptable.

"Once we have the clearer guidance on exactly what is expected of us, the school and its governors will seriously consider the commission's findings and work towards addressing its concerns," he added.

The Independent Schools Council, which represents 1,280 independent schools, also called for the position on bursaries to be set out more clearly.

It said it was "highly concerned" about what it saw as the commission's focus on means-tested bursaries and "downplaying" of the significance of partnerships with local schools and communities.

David Lyscom, chief executive of the ISC, said: "The implication of the commission's findings appears to be that many schools must now aim to provide a significant - but still unspecified - proportion of their turnover in full bursaries.

"This will inevitably lead to fee increases for the vast majority of parents, putting the benefits of an independent education beyond the reach of a greater number of children."

St Anselm's, a Derbyshire prep school with 239 pupils, has annual fees ranging from £6,600 for its nursery to £17,310 for older boarders. It spends around 1 per cent of its income on providing two means-tested bursaries for up to 90 per cent of its fees. It also spends another 1 per cent of its income on hardship awards. It has net assets of just over £3.5m.

The commission was concerned that because the means-tested bursaries did not cover 100 per cent of fees, people in poverty might be excluded from the opportunity to benefit.

Its report said the number of awards and their value was "minimal and so on their own would not be regarded as sufficient". It said other benefits, such as making the school's facilities available to local children, would also not be sufficient to meet the public benefit requirement "in the context of the core service provided by the charity".

Highfield Priory School in Preston has a main school fee of £5,795 but it offers no means-tested bursaries at all and has reserves of £826,000.

The commission's assessment report reads: "The lack of bursary provision means there are no means-tested measures that demonstrate that people in poverty are not excluded."

The regulator said it would work with governors to change the school's constitution, which says at least six out of 10 governors must be parents. The commission said the current governors were all parents, making it impossible to manage conflicts of interest when setting fee levels and deciding on wider public access.

A statement from the school's governors said they would "consider fully the implications of the Charity Commission report and respond to it after taking professional advice".

Three schools passed the test: Manor House School Trust Ltd (which runs Moyles Court School),
Pangbourne College and the Manchester Grammar School Foundation.

The latter, which has assets of £4.4m, offers bursaries to 203 of its 1,471 pupils, including 120 bursaries that cover 100 per cent of fees. It spends 14 per cent of its income on such bursaries.

Christopher Ray, high master of the school, said the school was proud of its record on bursaries.

"However, we believe that it would be quite wrong for MGS to be regarded as providing any kind of bursarial benchmark for other schools," he said.

"We note the guidelines published by the commission that state there are many ways for a school to provide public benefit other than through the provision of means-tested bursaries."

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