The independent school sector has come under particular scrutiny in the UK recently, not least as part of heightened political interest. The charitable status of independent schools is being called into question again with Labour’s recent calls for an integration of the entire UK sector, and with the Scottish Parliament now progressing the removal of the charitable rates relief for schools in Scotland, the public benefit of independent schools is being vastly overshadowed. There is no common approach across the UK to what that benefit looks like.
Charitable status has attracted, and still attracts, a great deal of public scrutiny and rightly so. All of the c.24,000 registered charities in Scotland need to demonstrate that they uphold and extend their charitable purposes. The independent school sector has undergone the most rigorous scrutiny since the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator (OSCR) started work. The debate in the Scottish Parliament, which led to the 2005 Act created the toughest test of charitable status anywhere in the UK and, in reality, anywhere in the world.
As part of their purpose of the provision of education, Scottish independent schools must and do ensure that public benefit outweighs any private benefit and ensure access to that benefit is not too restrictive. This involves means-tested fee assistance to widen participation in the schools, but also wider work to share expertise, resources, opportunities and facilities both locally and nationally. This duty to others combines with young people across the Scottish sector taking responsibility to work in and with the communities immediately around them as well as further afield.
Benefit to local community
Independent schools regularly provide school facilities such as academic, vocational and sport resources, hosting events, and sharing music and arts provision with local schools and communities and community groups. This includes the sharing of staff subject expertise and teaching facilities.
Volunteering and charity work
For example, at Merchiston Castle School in Edinburgh, there is a real focus on using the school’s cultural, sporting and other facilities for local public benefit to awaken an awareness amongst pupils of the social context of the all-round education being received. Since 2010, Merchiston have raised £10,000 for Place2Be – the equivalent of 1,428 Place2Talk sessions for children who need a safe place to address their worries and anxieties, making a profound difference to vulnerable children. The school commits staff expertise to other educational agencies and schools while facilities are shared on a non-profit basis for community use.
Over 500 Erskine Stewart’s Melville Schools (ESMS) pupils are actively involved in community service within and out with the schools, including the entire sixth form of over 250 students. The school has raised funds for charities like Social Bite, SAMH and RNLI. Over £76,000 was raised for more than 40 charities, including Bloodwise, Rock Trust and Edinburgh Food Bank. In addition, a special one-off event raised over £87,000 which was split equally between My Name’5 Doddie Foundation and the schools’ Access to Excellence charity which helps children benefit from an ESMS education regardless of the financial capabilities of their parents.
Independent schools dedicate more than £30m a year towards means-tested fee awards
In many instances, the schools’ support for charities extends beyond fundraising to incorporate significant community projects. All three schools support the development and management of two schools in Malawi, both through charitable fundraising, working with Open Arms Malawi, and by supplying teaching and pupil support during the summer and autumn breaks. The Mary Erskine School and the ESMS Junior School have been heavily involved in the establishment, through The Chesney Trust, of The Edinburgh Girls’ High School in north-east Malawi.
ESMS has also completed the sixth year of a ground-breaking Partnership Agreement with City of Edinburgh Council, whereby the schools took over the management and maintenance of Arboretum Playing Fields on a 60-year lease, in exchange for the restoration of the previously derelict pavilion and guaranteed continuing access by local clubs and schools. Under the agreement, local schools use Arboretum playing fields for rugby and football fixtures free of charge on a weekly basis.
In both aforementioned schools, as at most Scottish independent schools, pupils will take part in the Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme with a duty of service to communities.
Morrison’s Academy has been at the heart of the local community in Crieff since 1860. Its pupils take part in many community and charity projects, whether it is the pipe band playing at the Remembrance day parade or the switching on of the Christmas lights or the chamber choir singing at a local residential home. The school shares its amenities with various local groups who make use of the music facilities, the climbing wall and Academy Hall.
Morrison’s has active pupil-led charity committees across all levels, proactively raising money for a wide range of local, national and international charities, including the Macmillan Cancer Support Coffee Morning. As well as reactively supporting global causes, most years a group of S6 pupils visit our partner school, Nansato Primary in Malawi.
Pupils fundraise throughout the year to pay the salary of an extra P7 teacher at the school and also fund specific projects, such as building wells and refurbishing classrooms and equipment. Closer to home, many of Morrison’s pupils also volunteer with local youth and sport groups or visit residential care homes in the area and are actively involved with the Crieff Community Garden and also regularly support activities in MacRosty Park.
Support with financing school fees
All independent schools offer financial support to help families wishing to access their education. Independent schools dedicate more than £30m a year towards means-tested fee awards. The level of financial support ranges from providing an entirely free place, where 100% of the fees are met by the school, to awards down to around 20% of the fees.
As not-for-profit organisations, any income generated by independent schools is reinvested back into the school, whether to pay staff salaries, improve facilities or widen access. As the charity regulator’s register shows, all schools operate on very tight margins, with their reserves often consisting predominantly of historic buildings that require considerable upkeep.
The independent sector provides choice, diversity and a commitment to personal excellence – at whatever level. Whatever the political winds of change in the country, it will continue to do so.