Private schools, beagle packs and charitable status

A judicial review is currently under way into the Charity Commission’s guidelines on what private schools need to do to retain their charitable status, in response to a legal challenge from the Independent Schools Council. The BBC reports:

The Independent Schools Council, representing more than 1,200 private schools, has argued that the Charity Commission is defining public benefit too narrowly.

It wants to clarify the charity rules – and is calling for schools to be able to put more emphasis on their partnerships with local state schools and the sharing of facilities and expertise.

But on Monday the court will receive evidence from a group of educationalists and lawyers, the Education Review Group, which argues that independent schools are being allowed unfair tax advantages through their charitable status.

The group claims that private schools enjoy tax breaks worth £88m per year – with some of these schools providing a luxury “gold-plated” service at a cost that is prohibitive to most families.

Charitable status remains one of the forgotten disgraces of our society. At a time when public services, public sector jobs and benefits are being slashed – and we’re being told that we’re all in this together – millions of pounds of public money are being siphoned into private schools, with subsidies potentially amounting to thousands of pounds per pupil. The Education Review Group’s statement is worth reading in full as it offers a devastating exposure of what charitable status actually means, but its main conclusions from its executive summary are:

  • private education remains socially divisive;
  • private schools cream off able pupils and teachers from state provision, having a disproportionate effect on it;
  • importantly, that fees are increasing much faster than inflation and in particular average pay, exacerbating their exclusiveness;
  • a reason for this is that many of the activities at those schools are “gold plated” like running beagling packs and golf courses, demonstrating that education is not their sole function and that they cannot claim simply to be covering the cost of education in those fees
  • the costs of providing bursaries is small, and their impact is detrimental to the education system as a whole

In other words, the private school system not only brings no general benefit to society, but the existence of the system is actively damaging in a number of respects.

Above all, the submission raises the question of what we mean by a charity. Even taken in its broadest sense – to mean an organisation that works for the common good – it seems ludicrous to claim that private schools are charities.

Labour did little about the basic principle of charitable status, although it did empower the Charities Commission to scrutinise schools’ activities much more carefully. It is that legacy that has led the private schools to mount this judicial review, clamining that the Charities Commission is asking too much.

But this seems ridiculous. Estimates of the value of charitable status suggest that the total taxpayers’ subsidy is £88 million. And it’s ludicrous to claim that, when the cost of educating a pupil in an English secondary school is around £6000, the taxpayer is getting value for money – or even saving money – by pouring thousands of pounds per pupil in subsidy into the private sector. And that’s before we consider the costs of exempting school fees from VAT.

The conclusion is inevitable – charitable status for the likes of Eton and Winchester simply cannot be justified. It’s ironic beyond words that the present government, largely made up of course of the beneficiaries of this subsidy, continues with it at a time when we are being told that as a society we can’t afford housing benefits for the inner-city poor, or we need to put the ill and disabled through humiliating tests so that they can prove their unfitness to work. Or when those same politicians decry what they call a dependency culture, knowing that their old school chums in the media won’t point out the inconsistency.

Our political system is broken on the wheel of class; that is why this disgrace is allowed to continue. A decent society is one in which charitable status for finishing schools for the rich would be inconceivable.

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One thought on “Private schools, beagle packs and charitable status

  1. Pingback: So just which are those drifting schools? « Notes from a Broken Society

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