Inquiry at sect schools that banned books
The funding of British faith schools run by an extreme religious sect is under investigation by the taxman over multi-million pound gift aid claims, The Times has learnt.
The Exclusive Brethren operates 34 schools under a restrictive regime that segregates boys and girls during break times at secondary school, has banned books, including JD Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, and uses textbooks with passages on evolution torn out.
The private schools, which cost £30 million a year to run and are funded through a complex web of Brethren-controlled charities, have made repeated applications for free school status. So far none has succeeded but David Cameron has pledged to open another 500 schools in England over the next five years, increasing the possibility of a successful application.
The Times revealed yesterday that the charity regulator struck a deal with the Brethren to grant them charitable status after the Brethren’s Australian leader privately called for “extreme pressure” to be applied to William Shawcross, the commission’s head.
Last night, Sir Stephen Bubb, chief executive of Acevo, which represents charity chiefs, called on the Charity Commission to explain why it had secured millions of pounds a year in tax breaks for the Brethren despite finding that their practices caused harm and broke up families.
“Mr Shawcross needs to give a full account of how the decision was arrived at and what kind of pressure was put on him,” Sir Stephen said. “This is about the independence of the regulator.”
Crispin Blunt, the Tory MP, said: “The Charity Commission appears to have bowed to pressure and not conducted a full review.”
Gavin Shuker, vice-chairman of Christians in Parliament, described the Brethren’s practices as “essentially cultish”.
“Very quickly here in parliament they managed to get an enormous number of MPs saying this was a religious liberty question,” he said. “We’re a parliament that doesn’t do much diligence, we just wade in without even a Google.”
Revenue & Customs is examining whether the Brethren have wrongly claimed thousands of tax rebates on parental donations that help fund their schools’ £30 million-a-year operation. If HMRC finds against the single Brethren school under investigation, tax relief of up to £4 million a year across all the sect’s schools could be at risk.
Brethren schools typically record above-average results and most have glowing inspection reports.
“The national curriculum is followed in all schools,” the Brethren spokesman said. “There is no [central] policy requiring textbooks to have pages removed or stuck together. The PBCC [Plymouth Brethren Christian Church] does not contradict scientific views of the age of the Earth.”
He admitted, however, that individual schools retain discretion over what is taught and how.
The Times can also reveal that Brethren schools secretly introduced school fees four years ago, despite claiming in brochures and accounts filed with the Charity Commission that its schools were free. The fees, which parents were told were obligatory, were recorded as “voluntary income” in an arrangement that will raise further questions about the schools’ financial structure.
A 2011 letter announcing the introduction of yearly “fees” of £1,500 per child stated that fees were “an essential principle of righteousness in our administration” and that “an invoice will be issued direct from the individual schools shortly”.
Parents at one school were later warned that “fees should be regarded as an obligation in the same way as paying your electricity and other household bills”. Yet accounts filed by the school trusts said they were “non-fee paying”.
The spokesman said that in 2011 “a modest sum” had been requested from parents. It was initially described as a fee but subsequently changed to “parental contribution” on legal advice.
Although schools can claim gift aid on “voluntary contributions”, a Brethren spokesman insisted that no school had claimed tax relief on this element of funding. He accepted, however, that tax inspectors had questioned gift aid claims made on donations from parents.
“Such issues as there have been derive from uncertainty about the correct application of the rules,” he said. “Other faith schools are also currently being investigated by HMRC over gift aid.”
HMRC would not comment on this claim and it is unclear if it relates to the same funding structure used by Brethren schools.
The Charity Commission described its process toward the Brethren as “searching and robust”.