Scots private school accused of being part of fee-fixing cartel

A SCOTTISH private school was accused yesterday of being part of a cabal that broke competition laws by sharing information about increases in pupils' fees.

Strathallan School in Perthshire was one of 50 establishments across the United Kingdom which were named by the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) after a two-and-a-half year investigation into claims that they kept their fees artificially high.

Among the other leading schools named were Eton College, where the princes William and Harry studied, Harrow and Winchester.

All the schools have until March next year to respond to the ruling. If the OFT's findings are upheld, they face being fined thousands of pounds.

Anthony Glasgow, the bursar at Strathallan, which has about 450 pupils and charges nearly 7,000 a term for boarders, said that the school was studying the OFT's 600-page ruling.

"The matter is now in the hands of our lawyers," Mr Glasgow said.

The OFT claims the 50 schools exchanged information with each other on their planned fee increases for the 2001-2, 2002-3 and 2003-4 academic years, in contravention of the Competition Act 1998.

The information was collected by Sevenoaks School in Kent, which then circulated it to the other schools involved. In its statement, the OFT said: "This regular and systematic exchange of confidential information as to intended fee increases was anti-competitive and resulted in parents being charged higher fees than would otherwise have been the case."

Last night, the Independent Schools Council (ISC) branded the investigation a "scandalous waste of public money", and it insisted the schools involved had not knowingly broken the rules.

Jonathan Shepherd, the ISC general secretary, said that as schools were charitable organisations, they believed they were exempt from competition law when they entered into the fees arrangement.

They were unaware that the exemption had been removed in 2000, and had put an end to the "Sevenoaks Survey" when they were told.

Mr Shepherd said: "This is a Kafka-esque situation. The law seems to have changed without parliament realising and without the independent sector being consulted - contrary to the government's own strict guidelines on consultation.

"Schools are now being held liable for breaking a law which no-one knew applied to them."

Mark Pyper, the headmaster of Gordonstoun School, near Elgin, said they had also been investigated by the OFT but were found to have no involvement in the scheme.

"We're a very independent school," he said, adding: "You set your fees according to sound business principles, rather than what anyone else is doing.

"I keep other schools at arm's length - they are friendly competitors and I wouldn't think about going into any discussions with them about fees."