Wellington School risks losing charitable status

Classical musician Nicola Benedetti flourished at Wellington. Picture: Jane Barlow
Classical musician Nicola Benedetti flourished at Wellington. Picture: Jane Barlow
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ONE of Scotland’s leading private schools has been told it must do more to help pupils from less well-off backgrounds join its ranks or risk losing its charitable status.

Wellington School in Ayr, founded in 1836 and whose former pupils include violinist Nicola Benedetti, failed the “charity test” set by the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator (OSCR) due to what was described as its “unduly restrictive” fees and its focus on low-value bursary awards.

Five other schools passed the charity test – St Margaret’s School for Girls, Aberdeen; Robert Gordon’s College, also Aberdeen; Kelvinside Academy, Glasgow; Belmont House School, Glasgow; and Glenalmond College, Perthshire.

The OSCR report showed only one pupil at Wellington, where annual senior school fees are £10,407, received a full award during 2012-13.

The co-educational day school is one of 40 fee-charging schools whose charitable status, which allows them to remain exempt from tax, is being reviewed to ensure they provide a benefit to the community.

A total of 48 pupils – representing 9.9 per cent of the main school roll – received a means-tested award but the bursaries, with a total value of £146,000, were focused primarily at 40 per cent or less of fees. Mark Parlour, the school’s headmaster, said he was “disappointed” by the findings and defended the school’s record, saying it had seen an eightfold increase in the number of pupils receiving financial support.

However, the regulator said insufficient measures were in place to provide assistance in respect of high school fees, or to otherwise widen the access to the benefit provided. It said although the school offered means-tested assistance, it committed only 3.1 per cent of its income to bursary awards.

Tighter control of charities was introduced by the Scottish Parliament in 2006 following scandals involving cancer charities.

New rules mean that charities must now demonstrate they have a charitable aim, such as education, but also that they have a wider public benefit.

In 2011, following a three-year investigation, four of Scotland’s leading private schools were able to retain their charitable status. – Merchiston Castle in Edinburgh; St Leonards in St Andrews; Hutchesons’ Grammar in Glasgow; and Lomond School in Helensburgh.

Mr Parlour, whose school now has 18 months to comply with OSCR’s direction, said: “Naturally, we are disappointed by this outcome given the extensive commitment to public benefit in the local community and beyond which our staff and pupils make.

“It is clear from OSCR’s direction we have met the necessary regulations, save for the percentage of our income that we allocate to means-tested bursaries.

“Even before the first round of charities reviews, we had embarked on a journey to increase the range and number of our means-tested bursaries.”

Labour’s education spokesman Hugh Henry said he had concerns about the public benefit test applied to private schools.

“I have previously written to the Scottish Government asking for a more robust definition and a review,” he said. “If private schools are accessing scarce public resources, they should be able to show beyond all reasonable doubt there is clear public benefit. In this case, Wellington has failed to demonstrate it is providing public benefit.”