Despite recent changes schools ' are determined not to panic, discovers John Hinton
Are the country's leading Catholic independent boarding schools worried about the proposed new test of "public benefit" which is to be introduced by the Charity Commission? Some commentators have called the test a threat which aims to strip schools of the tax breaks totalling £100 million a year which come with their charitable status if they fail to prove they benefit people other than those able to afford fees.
But heads of leading Catholic schools interviewed by The Catholic Herald appeared to reflect the views already expressed by Pat Langham , president of the Independent Girls' School Association: that the test is nothing more than a bureaucratic exercise.
Detailed guidelines have yet to be issued. But Frances Gumley-Mason, headmistress of St Augustine Priory, an independent Catholic girls school in Ealing, west London, said she would like to refer to a person who was quite an authority on the matter of charitable status: Lance Corporal Jack Jones from the 1970s BBC sitcom Dad's Army. "He has quite a useful message for all independent school heads,she said, "which is:' Don't panic!"
"If you read the news it does sound as though there is going to be legislation whereby all independent schools are going to be turned into pumpkins within a fortnight. In fact, that's not the case. If you look, the charitable purposes of independent schools remains charitable purposes including, in our case, the advancement of religion. There is no change and no need to panic.
"Where the difference comes in is over the matter of 'public benefit'. Part of the reason why there is so much panic is the lack of clarity at the moment. But I think you'll find within the independent sector as a whole and the Catholic independent sector in particular there are already many instances of public benefit. I'm thinking of the trend of all independent schools to move away from offering scholarships and to funnel this money towards hardships bursaries. That's what we've done, and the vast majority of schools have done. Ever since the very sad departure of the assisted places scheme, many schools have filled in the gap left by the end of that wonderful scheme.
"In addition to that," Mrs Gumley-Mason, a former editor of The Catholic Herald continued, "any schools that are involved in other charitable activities and in sharing their facilities and Catholic schools tend to be in the forefront of this really are completely within the spirit of the charity act. So I would say don't panic: just listen to Lance Corporal Jack Jones.
The school, rated 23rd among public schools in the country, takes girls from four through to 18. It boasts a new science block, and has just celebrated 400 years since its foundation. "And we're all set," said the headmistress cheerfully, "for the next 400 years."
Meanwhile, at Ampleforth College, Yorkshire, Procurator Peter Bryan said the requirement of charities to show public benefit had been around for a long time.
"The actual change that's being brought about is that where in the past it was presumed in that those charities involved in furthering the faith and furthering education automatically demonstrated that benefit, we now actually have to show that. This is not a big change in any sense.
"This gives us an opportunity to show what we do in the present and consider what we might do in the future. This focuses our minds on two areas: increasing access to the school itself and increasing our cooperation with those in the maintained sector."
He added: "We're hoping to make more places available to people who would struggle to find the fees at Ampleforth. These include boys whose parents would not ever entertain a place here with really significant levels of assistance. That's obviously going to be a limited number, but that's what we're trying do." Adrian Aylward, headmaster of Leweston Catholic Girls School in Dorset and chairman of the Independent Catholic Schools Conference, said full guidance on the issue was still awaited.
"But if you look at things like involvement with the local community and indeed bursaries, I think the Catholic independent sector is in reasonable shape," he said. "Schools are quite often wellrooted in their communities and have a religious involvement quite apart from sharing facilities and the like.
"Here at Leweston quite a number of people from the local community come in for Mass on Sundays. We do the 10 o'clock Mass on Sunday and a lot of people come in from the surrounding area. Historically here there is a tradition of a number of free or assisted places. I don't think there is any need for the Catholic schools to be fearful about this issue. But, in an unassuming way, a lot of us are doing a considerable amount."
Andrew Johnson, the headmaster of Stonyhurst College in Lancashire, said he was waiting to receive some specific guidance from the Charity Commission and could not comment on details until that had been received.
"But," he said, "I would tend to agree that with that caveat there probably won't be too much to worry about."
One thing which would certainly be considered was the number of assisted places, help given in the form of bursaries.
"As with a number of other independent Catholic schools, we fulfil out charitable status in a range of different ways," Mr Johnson said. "But first we have to receive the guidance, we'll review that and make any changes we need to make. But from what we've heard, we're well-placed here at Stonyhurst to demonstrate our charitable status as we do fulfil our charitable purpose."
The main drive behind the commission's proposals, according to officials, is that independent schools should offer more bursaries to pupils from poor homes. And they should also offer A-level master-classes and share playing fields or theatres with local state schools. Clearly, many schools are already doing this and much more.