Sunday, 11 October 2009

The tide has turned against Dame Suzi and her Public Benefit test

I was there when Dame Suzi Leather addressed the HMC at our annual conference earlier in the week.

I first heard Dame Suzi at the ISC conference in 2008 when she outlined the Charity Commission's position on the Public Benefit test in light of the 2006 Charity Act. Despite her reputation [See The Times profile "The Dame who’ll give private schools a lesson in what charity really means" 18th August 2007] , there was an atmosphere of hope amongst the heads present that this might be someone with whom the independent sector could work. On paper at least, she could hardly be described as anti-Independent Schools - afterall she was herself the product of a GSA school [St Mary's Calne] and, more importantly, has chosen to educate her own children in our sector. Heads at that time felt that the new drive from the Commission was a timely reminder to revisit our Charitable objects and to place an even greater emphasis on the part that our schools play in our communities.

Since then it has become increasingly apparent that there is a clear political agenda about the way in which the Charity Commission is interpreting the 2006 Charity Act. It hinges on the Public Benefit test and the publication of the findings on the six independent schools has shown that the Commission is applying a very narrow interpretation that focuses primarily on bursaries.

The packed meeting of HMC heads at the Adelphi earlier this week witnessed the most remarkable exchange between Dr Chris Ray, the Headmaster of Manchester Grammar School, and Dame Suzi. According to the Charity Commission assessment, MGS "passed" the public benefit test on the basis of its bursary provision, however the ruling indicated that its wider activities were insufficient to meet the standard.

Dr Ray took great issue with this and outlined all the things that his school does for the community - it was an extensive list, we were all in awe of the range of activities that the school provided. The general feeling was that if MGS had failed to meet the standard in terms of wider public benefit there really is no hope for the rest of us.

There was very little scope for anyone to consider that these contributions did not warrant that MGS was worthy of its Charitable Status because of the wider public benefit it provides, regardless of its bursary provision. Dame Suzi disagreed and lamely suggested that had Dr Ray presented the material better, perhaps it would have been deemed sufficient. Those present made it known they were with Dr Ray on this one. The MGS case exposes the lie: the Commission de facto are ignoring the wider contributions that our schools make to society, by focusing solely on bursaries.

The tide has turned. I expect that we will see more articles in the press such as Alasdair Palmer's comment in the Sunday Telegraph today:
Private schools are at the mercy of the Charity Commission's prejudices

For the Public Benefit Assessment reports:

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