Top private schools face losing charity status

Fettes College, one of three schools to fail the test
Fettes College, one of three schools to fail the test
Share this article
Have your say

THREE of Scotland’s most prestigious private schools have had their charitable status put under threat after a report from the charity regulator.

Fettes College and St George’s School for Girls, both Edinburgh, and St Columba’s School in Kilmacolm, Renfrewshire, have failed the regulator’s charity test and been warned they must do more to help pupils from low-income families.

The Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator (OSCR) found the three schools did not pass the charity-test criteria as they had not done enough to provide assistance with fees. They have been given 18 months to widen access or face the removal of their charitable status.

Such status for private schools has been controversial, with opponents saying it amounts to a state subsidy for schools that educate the well-off. Those listed as charities are excused corporation tax and receive an 80 per cent discount on their rates. It also makes them eligible for specific loans and grants.

Under legislation passed by the Scottish Parliament in 2005, charities, including schools, must pass a test demonstrating they provide public benefit.

When there are conditions on the public accessing the benefit – such as school fees – institutions must prove they have taken steps to ensure these are not “unduly restrictive”.

The OSCR is reviewing the charitable status of 40 of Scotland’s 100 or so private schools.

Yesterday, it released the results of its review of 13 of those schools. The ten that passed were: Ardvreck School in Crieff, Perthshire; Beaconhurst Grange in Stirling; Belhaven Hill in Dunbar, East Lothian; Clifton Hall in Midlothian; Craigclowan in Perth; Dollar Academy in Clackmannanshire; the Edinburgh Steiner School; the High School of Glasgow; and Kilgraston and Strathallan, both in Perthshire.

When it came to Fettes, former prime minister Tony Blair’s old school, the OSCR found its fees were “substantial and represent a restriction on accessing the majority of the benefit the charity provides”.

Fettes charges £12,555 a year for primary pupils and £19,680 for those who are boarding. Fees for secondary pupils are £20,235 – £27,150 for boarders.

It offers means-tested assistance to those unable to pay full fees but in 2011-12, only seven per cent of its income was committed to providing this, while 9.6 per cent of pupils on the school roll of 706 benefited from it. Only five received a full award, entitling them to 100 per cent of the fees. The OSCR said this was insufficient to mitigate the level of fees.

St George’s School charges annual fees of £8,010 for primary and £10,932 for secondary pupils. It committed only 4.3 per cent of its income in 2011-12 to fees assistance, benefiting 12.4 per cent of the main school roll. Of its 781 pupils, only four received a full award.

Similar criticisms were directed against St Columba’s, a co-educational day school catering for pupils aged three to 18. The OSCR said its fees – £8,231 a year for the junior school and £9,720 for seniors –were “substantial”.

The school did offer assistance to those unable to pay the full fees, but that benefited only 5.4 per cent of the roll of 712. The school committed only 3.5 per cent of its income to the scheme, and just eight pupils received 100 per cent fee remission.

Hugh Henry, Labour’s education spokesman, said: “It is not acceptable that these schools are failing to demonstrate public benefit, despite receiving the financial support of having charitable status. If they cannot or will not show they are providing the public benefit which the legislation requires, then the Scottish charity regulator must act to remove their charitable status.”

Scottish Conservative education spokeswoman Liz Smith said: “Charitable status is a very important asset within Scottish education and it is absolutely right that there is a rigorous

assessment of the criteria by which it is awarded.”

Fettes headmaster Michael Spens said: “Although OSCR acknowledges the valuable public benefit we already provide, they have identified improvements that they wish to see implemented. We are naturally disappointed by this outcome but strongly believe that, by working with OSCR, we can satisfy the requirements of their charities test within the prescribed timescale.”

Anne Everest, head of St George’s School for Girls said: “We were very disappointed by OSCR’s decision, given the extensive range of partnerships and work with the community that St George’s undertakes. 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.”

She added: “We shall look carefully into OSCR’s report with a view to meeting the public-benefit test as soon as possible. We are a charity and shall remain a charity.”

David Girdwood, rector of St Columba’s, said: “We are disappointed but not overly surprised at the outcome. We started bursaries four years ago and we have gone from bursaries providing zero per cent of fee income to 3.5 per cent of fee income in that time.

“We have paid out £212,000 to pupils who wouldn’t have come to our school otherwise this year. Clearly, we need to increase that further. But it has been very difficult to press ahead faster, given current financial conditions. Our parents are struggling to pay fees and to put fees up to increase the number of bursaries is difficult.”

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “It is for each registered charity to demonstrate that it provides public benefit to the satisfaction of OSCR, which must make its decisions based upon the evidence.”

The OSCR is now assessing Fernhill School in Glasgow; Cedars School of Excellence in Greenock; Wellington in Ayr; Robert Gordon’s in Aberdeen; Glenalmond in Perthshire; Kelvinside in Glasgow; St Margaret’s in Aberdeen and Belmont House in East Renfrewshire.

The schools in profile

Fettes College

Fettes College is sometimes known as the Eton of the North. It is named after Sir William Fettes, twice lord provost of Edinburgh who, having lost his only son in 1815, devoted his wealth to education.

The school opened in 1870 in the formidable and grandiose David Bryce-designed building (main picture). At the outset, it was a school for orphans, but began to take after the classic English public-school model.

Originally a boys’ boarding school, it is now co-educational. Of the 706 pupils, 450 board. Parents pay £27,150 a year for a senior boarder.

Last year, a survey found it was the second most expensive Scottish school after Gordonstoun. Famous Fettesians include former prime minister Tony Blair, above, the actress Tilda Swinton and David Murray, the former Rangers chairman.

St Columba’s

Originally an all-girls school, St Columba’s in Kilmacolm was founded in 1897 by the Girls’ School Company, when it opened as a day and boarding school for 54 young ladies.

It went co-educational about 30 years ago and today is a day school catering for pupils from the ages of three to 18. It currently has a roll of 712 pupils

Unlike some Scottish private schools, it does not flirt with the English education system, preferring its pupils to study for Highers, rather than A-levels.

Academically, it is regarded as one of the best-performing Scottish schools. Parents pay £9,720 per year for a pupil in the senior school.

Its former pupils include the Conservative MP for Epping Forest, Eleanor Laing, above.

St George’s School for Girls

As its name suggests, St George’s School for Girls is a single-sex establishment for day and boarding pupils.

Day girls, however, make up the majority of its 781 roll.

Founded in 1888, it aimed to take the lead in the women’s education movement by providing a full education for girls in Edinburgh – an aspiration that still holds strong today.

On the Ravelston campus, girls are divided into houses that take their names from Scottish noble families. Parents of secondary pupils pay £10,932 a year.

The school has guarded its single-sex status despite the co-education trend. Social events are organised with Merchiston Castle School, an all-boys school across the city in Colinton.

Famous old girls include Annie Penrose, whose childhood nickname, “Spitfire”, was borrowed by her father, Sir Robert MacLean, when he named the RAF’s most famous fighter aircraft.