Trust aims to 'save' charity status

Bedford charity the Harpur Trust, which runs four fee-charging schools, has anticipated changes in the forthcoming Charities Bill by publishing a strategic plan that will enhance its public-service credentials.

Chief executive David Russell says the five-year plan was initiated long before the public benefit of independent schools became a subject of debate.

But the new strategy, which will widen access to its schools, came out after Bedford Borough Council wrote to the joint committee on the draft Charities Bill in June, arguing that the schools' exclusive entry requirements should disqualify the trust from charitable status.

The trust's plan states that the increased cost of providing education, especially teachers' salaries, has meant that its bursary scheme offers fewer opportunities for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. It also stresses the need to address what effects a future public benefit test might have on its activities.

"Some 72 per cent of our endowment income currently goes to bursaries, while the rest goes to grant making," said Russell.

"This will gradually shift. Bursaries will be funded by the schools, which will release more funds from endowment income to pursue our other charitable activities, the relief of poverty and the provision of recreational facilities with a social-welfare purpose".

Of the 3,800 pupils educated by the four schools owned by the charity, 220 children from disadvantaged backgrounds are supported by bursaries, a number that Russell wants to maintain and possibly increase.

Tony Mitchell, deputy leader of Bedford County Council who, like members of the borough council, has already written several letters of complaint to the Charity Commission and the joint committee, believes that the bursaries are a device to take talented children from maintained schools.

"In a comprehensive system, there is a balance between talented, mid-talented and less able children, and the trust is upsetting that balance," he said. "Their bursaries are only for talented disadvantaged children, and exclude the rest by means of fees or entry requirements. This is anything but charitable."

Mitchell said that the trust's strategic plan is a "sprat to catch a mackerel", arguing that by trying to increase the amount of money that goes to help the community it hopes to save its charitable status.

"They want to quadruple the money for grant-making and that is fine, and they should get tax relief for that. But on top of that, they claim charitable status for the £46m spent on running schools for privileged children - that is a nonsense."

Russell defended the trust's position, insisting that "public benefit is not just a simple balance-sheet issue". He said: "We plan to develop a volunteering culture in schools to support disadvantaged people, which will create a sense of community and complement our grant programmes.

"It is difficult to know how the law might change, but I think we are moving in the right direction".

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