Education & Family

Private schools' legal challenge to charity rules

pupil working
Image caption Independent schools warn that providing bursaries could mean pushing up fees for other parents

Independent schools in England and Wales are to mount a legal challenge against tighter regulations over charitable status.

The Independent Schools Council claims the requirements to show how schools offer "public benefit" are unfair.

It says the cost of offering bursaries to poorer pupils could mean higher fees and pricing out hard-pressed families.

The Charity Commission says it looks at a wider range of public benefits when assessing cases - not just bursaries.

The Charity Tribunal will be asked to clarify the disputed rules under which independent schools can retain charitable status at a hearing which begins on Tuesday.

Flexible support

The 2006 Charities Act meant that independent schools could no longer automatically claim charitable status - instead they had to demonstrate that they offered benefits to a wider public, beyond their own fee-paying pupils.

But the Independent Schools Council, representing more than 1,200 schools, has argued that the Charity Commission guidelines interpret this in too narrow a way - with too much emphasis on bursaries.

The ISC says that its key concern is about whether private schools should be obliged to provide bursaries for poorer students as a condition of keeping charitable status.

The council says that many schools already offer bursaries - but it wants schools to be allowed flexibility over how they benefit the wider community, such as sharing facilities and developing partnerships with local state schools.

It warns that requiring schools to provide bursaries could mean pushing up fees, which it says will hurt those middle-income families who are already financially-stretched.

But the Charity Commission says that it takes a wider range of factors into account when assessing public benefit - including educational work with local communities and state schools, as well as bursaries.

The Charity Commission also says that it allows up to five years for charities to meet requirements.

Last year the ISC was successful in its bid for a judicial review - and the Charities Tribunal hearing is expected to last more than a week.

The proceedings will take place alongside questions from the Attorney General about charity law and public benefit, relating to fee-charging charities.

Charitable status brings tax benefits to independent schools believed to be worth more than £100m a year.

But independent schools say that they are offering means-tested bursaries worth over £200m a year.

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