Private schools want legal ruling on charity status

Eton College Independent schools now have to justify their charitable status

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The Independent Schools Council says it wants a legal ruling to clarify the guidelines on charitable status for private schools in England.

Such a legal ruling could come a step closer if the independent schools group is successful in its bid for a judicial review of Charity Commission guidance.

The ISC says it is expecting to hear shortly if there will be such a review.

In particular it wants to clarify what is meant by charity rules which expect schools to provide "public benefit".

Chief executive David Lyscom said the independent schools body "had no alternative but to challenge the commission in the courts".

'Public benefit'

Independent schools are required to show that they are offering a "public benefit", as a condition of charitable status.

There is no longer any automatic right to charitable status - with the Charity Commission requiring private schools to demonstrate that they qualify.

But there have been concerns among independent schools about a lack of certainty about what public benefit means.

Many fee-paying independent schools offer scholarships or subsidised places or share their facilities with local state schools.

But out of five test cases last year, the Charity Commission said that two schools did not offer sufficient public benefit to qualify for charitable status.

"The entire sector is at the whim of the commission's prevailing and subjective view as to what is 'sufficient' for a school to get the all-clear," said Mr Lyscom.

He takes issue with what he says is an over-narrow emphasis on means-tested bursaries offered by fee-charging schools.

Mr Lyscom says that schools' educational work is a public benefit - and that independent schools have sought to make facilities available to the wider community.

"Given the widespread controversy caused by the commission's approach, it is important that it should be tested at law," says Mr Lyscom.

Charitable status gives tax breaks to independent schools, but Mr Lyscom said it was not about money, but about protecting their not-for-profit educational ethos.

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