Fees-row school may help pay for degrees

PUPILS at a top private school found guilty of keeping its fees artificially high for three years could receive help with the cost of their university education as compensation, it emerged yesterday.

The Office of Fair Trading (OFT) has announced that Strathallan School in Perthshire must pay about 60,000 into a charitable educational fund to benefit the pupils who attended the school during the period concerned.

Strathallan, which counts the top golfer Colin Montgomerie among its former pupils and charges boarders up to 7,245 a term, was one of 50 independent schools across the UK accused by the OFT of breaking competition laws by sharing information about increases in pupils' fees between 2001-2 and 2003-4.

The schools have always argued that they were unaware the law had changed and had ceased sharing information as soon as they found out.

Each of the schools was fined 10,000, while they were also told to make ex-gratia payments totalling 3 million to the charitable fund.

However, it was not known until yesterday that the contents of the fund would be used to help the pupils whose parents were judged to have been over-charged during the period covered by the OFT investigation.

A final decision on what exactly the money will be used for is not expected to be taken until next year. But The Scotsman understands that one of the options being considered is giving the pupils help with the costs of their higher education once they leave school.

Another possible outcome is that the pupils could receive a refund covering the amount they were overcharged.

Jonathan Shephard, the general-secretary of the Independent Schools Council, which represents the vast majority of the UK's private schools, said he was pleased the issue had been resolved. He said: "Until the Competition Act came into force, schools and other educational establishments were specifically exempted from competition law and were fully entitled to exchange financial information.

"Schools were not consulted on the change to the law and continued to exchange information entirely openly.

"It is fully accepted that this infringed competition law, even though innocently, and the settlement recognises that this is the case.

"The schools concerned can now concentrate once again on providing a first-class education to their pupils."

The total number of Strathallan pupils affected is not known, although the school has a roll of about 450.

No-one at the school was available for comment last night.

Among the leading English schools who were accused by the OFT after a two-and-a-half year investigation were Eton College, Harrow and Winchester.

The OFT said the schools exchanged information about their intended fee increases and fee levels for boarding and day pupils.