Joint Committee on the Draft Charities Bill Written Evidence

Memorandum from Focus Learning Trust (DCH 136)

  1.1  Focus Learning Trust is a charity formed to give support, guidance and direction to a number of educational charities throughout the United Kingdom. It is the umbrella organisation for 64 educational charities which are registered as independent schools. Fifty-five of these schools have applied for designation as schools having a religious character and the remaining nine schools are in process of applying to be so designated.

  1.2  The education at each of these 64 schools is provided in accordance with the tenets of Christians known to government and authorities as "Brethren".

  1.3  In order to improve the quality of the education provided at these schools a programme of consolidation is in process. It is envisaged that the number of schools will be reduced by amalgamation or consolidation to approximately 40, covering approximately 2,000 students.

  1.4  The 64 school charities are affiliated to Focus Learning Trust and this submission is made on their behalf as well as on Focus Learning Trust's behalf.

  2.1  We fully accept and support the principles (a) that charities must be established for charitable purposes only and that the purposes must be for the public benefit (b) that the Charity Commission should at the time of application for registration satisfy itself that the actual activities carried out by the trust do accord with what is stated on paper in the governing document and (c) that continuing checks be made to verify the public benefit element.

  2.2  We support the Government's position as indicated in the draft Bill that there should be no new statutory definition of "public benefit". Could it be made clearer in the drafting of section 3 of the Bill that the law relating to charities is embodied in case law as well as statutes?

  2.3  We submit that the existing body of case law as to the satisfying of the public benefit test should continue to be available. If a statutory definition were to be introduced it is likely that there would be greater uncertainty as to its interpretation as the existing body of case law would not be available.

  3.1  It is noted that the Bill is silent as to what checks would be carried out on independent schools to verify their public benefit status. There have been suggestions in the Press that some community use of facilities or the provision of scholarships or bursaries would suffice to fulfil the public benefit requirement. We would welcome as much information as possible being available as to how the Charity Commission proposes to deal with the matter so that consultation can take place and submissions be made.

  3.2  Is it possible for the Joint Committee to bring some pressure upon the Charity Commission to indicate its proposals now?

  3.3  The schools affiliated to Focus Learning Trust have a policy of non-discrimination as to fees. Children are accepted in all the schools regardless of the ability of parents to contribute to the cost of their children's education, and regardless of the academic ability of the child (to the extent that children with Special Educational Needs are admitted and provided for). Some parents pay nothing at all; the schools are thus truly charitable in every sense. The schools have an energetic programme of fund raising. Brethren's businesses give financial support by regular standing order donations. Focus Learning Trust has a trading company, Unifocus Limited, which raises considerable funds from a variety of commercial initiatives. The cost of the education is covered from those sources together with contribution from those parents who can afford them.

  3.4  Focus Learning Trust and the 64 affiliated schools are supported by hundreds of trustees and thousands of volunteers who freely give their time to the support of the schools without any payment and in almost every case without even charging their travelling and other out of pocket expenses.

  4.1  We can understand that there is general concern as to the charitable status of independent schools and hospitals which charge full fees for their services. We are anxious that the status of truly charitable schools and hospitals is not jeopardised by the introduction of legislation which is aimed at bodies which may seem to be less charitable in character.

  4.2  We would like to see the existing body of case law as to public benefit remaining available to support genuinely charitable status.

  4.3  We would like to see clearer indications now of the intentions of the Charity Commission on the nature of their checks as to public benefit.

June 2004

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