As the body representing independent schools in Scotland, we are often asked why fee-paying schools are granted charitable status.
This issue came to the fore in the wake of the Barclay Review, a report commissioned by the Scottish Government which recommended removing charitable rates relief from independent schools in Scotland, while maintaining their charitable status. This led to a lot of debate centred on the question of why independent schools are granted charitable status in the first place.
The answer is actually quite simple.
In 2005, the government created the Office of Scotland Charity Register (OSCR) to assess all the organisations that held charitable status in Scotland including independent schools. To pass the charity test, Scotland’s independent schools had to show they are exclusively charitable (in other words, they cannot under any circumstances operate for profit) while demonstrating they are providing a public benefit.
After unique levels of scrutiny, the OSCR decided that independent schools should remain as charities having ensured their public benefit outweighed the private.
But what does this actually mean in practice?
Fee assistance to widen access
It means independent schools in Scotland dedicate over £54 million a year towards means-tested fee assistance. In fact, the amount of means-tested fee assistance has more than tripled since the charity test first measured it, massively widening access to the sector as a result.
Sharing of facilities
As well as providing fee assistance and bursaries, schools also share facilities with the local community, as well as working in partnership with local authority schools to share staff expertise and teaching facilities to the benefit of all pupils involved.
Sport, music, arts, academic and other facilities are provided at non-commercial rates (or none) to local teams, groups and pupils, including shared subject teaching and careers events. This has seen schools open their doors to community groups, hosting orchestras, dance groups and sports clubs to name a few.
For example, local groups and sports clubs use the grounds at Kilgraston School in Perthshire, its chapel is the local Catholic church and every year staff are markers for the SQA and music exams. And at Glenalmond College, also in Perthshire, the chapel is the Episcopal church for the local area.
The Barclay Review
As a result of the Barclay Review, an act of the Scottish Parliament recently removed the charitable rates relief provided to schools which support these public benefit activities. These unique measures have not been undertaken elsewhere in the UK, nor for any of the more than 25,000 other charities – of all kinds – on the Scottish register.
In response to this move, OSCR said it had concerns about treating any group of charities “in a differentiated way for tax or other purposes”. It added that independent schools had been “subject to much more scrutiny than many other charities... and ultimately they all passed the charity test”.
The charity test for Scottish independent schools is the strictest in the world. Our high-attaining schools have worked incredibly hard to meet that test and have been subjected to huge levels of scrutiny to prove they are worthy of charitable status.
Our schools do not operate as profit-making bodies - money from fees is either invested back into the school (to pay and recruit new staff or to improve facilities) or goes towards means-tested bursary assistance which hugely widens access to the independent sector, while sharing facilities and teaching resources with local communities and local schools to everyone’s benefit.