NEW evidence has claimed that despite their charity status, many of Scotland’s elite private schools offer almost no means-tested bursaries to primary school pupils.
As registered charities, the schools are allowed large tax breaks on the condition that they work for “public benefit” and access is not “unduly restrictive.”
With schools charging up to £30,000 per year, the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator (OSCR) was called in to investigated whether the fees constitute a restriction of access.
Over 40 of the schools passed tests from the regulator, but some were only able to retain their charitable status by expanding their bursary systems for families unable to meet the costs of a private education.
But in many of the schools the bursaries are only offered from the age of primary seven and above, leading campaigners to say that they are doing “as little as they can get away with.”
George Heriot’s is one such school, with annual fees up to £10,695, that offers bursaries primarily for students in their senior school.
A spokesperson said: “We are occasionally able to offer bursarial assistance to children joining primary seven but only in exceptional circumstances.”
Merchiston Castle, another private Scottish institution with fees of up to £28,560 per annum, only offers bursaries to its senior students.
Labour peer George Foulkes hit out at the practice, saying: “I think schools do as little as they can to get away with, rather than genuinely try to get disadvantaged pupils into the school.
“OSCR has been too lenient and should take a stronger line, as charitable status gives the schools a very substantial subsidy from the public purse.”
But John Edward, director of the Scottish Council of Independent Schools defended the strategy.
He said: “Focusing fee assistance on secondary years pupils is simple common sense.
“It maximises the means-tested assistance schools can provide at secondary level, where it can make the most difference to individual pupils.”
A spokesman for the OSCR said: “We were aware that in some cases, bursaries are more common or only available for senior school pupils.
“You will be aware that fee structure and bursary distribution also vary with each school. Fee levels for junior pupils also tend to be significantly lower.
“As we’ve previously stated, we base our decision on the individual circumstances that apply in each case, and the level of public benefit provided by each school overall.”