Three fee-charging Scottish schools, including the prestigious Fettes College, have failed the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator’s charity test and have been told to widen access to the benefits they provide.
The regulator has announced its decisions on 13 of the 40 fee-charging schools whose charitable status it is reviewing as a ‘priority group’ for assessment by summer 2014.
Ten schools met the test, defined in the Charities and Trustee Investment (Scotland) Act 2005, and will keep their charitable status.
The regulator has issued instructions to the remaining three – Fettes College in Edinburgh, whose alumni include the former Prime Minister Tony Blair, St George’s School for Girls in Edinburgh and St Columba’s School in Kilmacolm, Inverclyde – to widen access to the benefit they provide. They have 18 months to comply.
The regulator found in each case that insufficient measures had been taken to help people with the payment of high fees or to otherwise widen the access to the benefit they provided.
The OSCR began reviewing the charitable status of fee-charging schools in 2006 and had assessed 13 schools by December 2011. Of those, eight met the charity tests, with the remaining five doing so after complying with the regulator’s directions.
The latest announcement is part of the OSCR’s ongoing programme of reviews of charitable status, focusing on priority groups where there may be uncertainty about whether the charity test is met.
David Robb, chief executive of the OSCR, said the process was aimed at maintaining public confidence in charitable status. "Charities must provide public benefit, and that is what the legislation requires us to ensure," he said. "Ten of the schools have shown that they do provide a sufficient level of public benefit, but we have found that three do not, and we have therefore issued them with directions to comply with the legislation passed by the Scottish parliament."
Michael Spens, headmaster of Fettes College, said: "Although the OSCR acknowledges the valuable public benefit we already provide, it has identified improvements that it wishes to see implemented. We are naturally disappointed by this outcome but strongly believe that, by working with the OSCR, we can satisfy the requirements of its charities test within the prescribed timescale."
Anne Everest, head of St George’s School for Girls, said she was very disappointed with the decision, given the "extensive range of partnerships and work with the community" it does. She said the school would look carefully into the report with a view to meeting the public benefit test as soon as possible.
"We were confident in our provision of public benefit when the OSCR started assessing us," Everest said. "We shall continue to perform our main charitable function, which is to provide an excellent education for girls. We are committed to providing means-tested bursaries whenever we can, and we shall continue to support education in the community.
"We are a charity and shall remain a charity," she said.
David Girdwood, headmaster of St Columba's School, said he was disappointed by the OSCR’s decision but not surprised, because the former school for girls – unlike many former schools for boys – did not have a foundation created by financial bequests from former pupils.
Although the school did not have a history of bursaries, Girdwood said, the school had made good progress in recent years and, if it continued to do so, should be able to satisfy the regulator. The percentage of fee income allocated to bursaries each year had increased from 0 per cent in 2008/09 to the current figure of 3.5 per cent, he said.