The Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator ("OSCR") has announced plans to embark upon a review of charitable independent schools. Around 50 are to be reviewed from this autumn, to ensure that they continue to meet the charity test – in particular, that they provide public benefit.
In determining whether a charity provides public benefit, OSCR will assess whether its activities involve any private benefit, or disbenefit to the public; and whether there is any 'undue restriction' on gaining access to the benefit the charity provides. The primary issue will be whether the fee paying requirement unduly restricts access to the educational benefit.
This is not a new concern: independent schools have been subject to OSCR's "rolling review" of charities since 2007, with some being directed to take action to realign their public benefit balance, such as increasing means-tested bursaries and implementing more non-chargeable initiatives - for example, making school facilities available or partnering with state schools and local groups.
The scale of the planned review indicates that although, from past assessments, it is entirely possible for fee-charging schools to comply with public benefit requirements, concerns about undue restriction remain.
We understand that an initial review of annual reports and accounts is already underway, following which OSCR will work on a phased basis to consult with school governors and bursars, and liaise with other stakeholders, such as the Scottish Council for Independent Schools.