‘Public benefits’ test for charities

The charities watchdog has served notice that independent schools must change their way of thinking, warning that “charities must not be seen as ‘exclusive clubs’ that only a few can join”.

But the Charity Commission has also assured private schools in Wednesday’s guidance on charities’ new “public benefit” tests that “we will not expect charities to make changes overnight”. It adds: “We will take reasonable account of how much time and resource might be needed by a charity to make changes in order to meet the public benefit requirement.”

The guidance represents the latest stage in the commission’s effort to change charity rules following the 2006 Charities Act. According to the commission’s interpretation of the act, for the first time charities will have to show they are benefiting the public through their activities. This includes a requirement to help “people in poverty”.

Although the new regulations affect all charities, they have worried private schools in particular, since most are charities that charge fees. This makes it harder for them to benefit “people in poverty” – although many independent schools now offer bursaries to poor but bright children.

Wednesday’s “general guidance” for all charities from the commission, chaired by Dame Suzi Leather, does little to assuage the hunger of education lawyers for the real meat of how the new charity rules are going to affect private schools.

They are waiting for more detailed documents, due next month, which offer specific guidance for educational charities and fee-charging charities.

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