Editorial - Limited notion of charity benefits few

Commission's ruling on independent schools is unjust and unimaginative

Gerard Kelly

It is not always easy for those in state schools to accept the media's obsession with the problems of the independent sector - especially when their own shortcomings are magnified and achievements ignored. It is also a fair bet that the prospect of distressed gentlefolk being forced to withdraw their children from newly unaffordable schools as the recession bites has triggered as much schadenfreude as sympathy.

So this week's finding by the Charity Commission that some private schools have failed the public benefit test (page 23) may have been greeted by many with indifference. The test requires schools that claim charitable status to justify the Pounds 100 million they receive in tax relief by showing a clear public benefit and demonstrating how the poor are helped to access those benefits.

The spring cleaning the law on charities received in 2006 was overdue. It was salutary for many independent schools to recall that they owed much of their good fortune to centuries of public indulgence and to remember that their charitable responsibilities extended beyond providing an excellent education for a privileged minority. It cannot have been coincidental that the sector's grants to poor pupils increased by 25 per cent in a single year to Pounds 207 million. Good intentions do seem to go so much farther with a little encouragement.

Now the commission has ruled that a couple of their number have not gone far enough. Unsurprisingly, the sector feels aggrieved. It points out that it saves the public purse billions of pounds by educating 400,000 pupils at private expense. That is an extremely bad argument. Parents who educate their children privately are doing them a favour, not the state. They rightly pay a considerable premium for the privilege. It is difficult to see why they should be compensated any more than those who opt out of public health or transport.

For all that, the commission was wrong to rule as it did. It claims that the clearest way for independent schools to prove public benefit is by providing bursaries for disadvantaged pupils but that "some schools will be able to satisfy it in other ways". It has refused to specify what proportion of fees should be set aside for grants or to outline what those "other ways" might be. Why, for instance, has public benefit been so narrowly defined and restricted to bursaries? Arguably, society gains far more from the wider engagement of public schools in their communities through partnerships with state schools, say, than from allocating a couple of places to bright poor children.

Furthermore, was it really wise of the commission to rap over the knuckles a pair of schools that do not have the cash to provide significant bursaries? To penalise them for their lack of resources is perverse. Surely the commission could devise a formula that takes into account income and fee level - ie the poorer the school and the cheaper it is, the less it has to provide in bursaries? Or is charity to be reserved for the truly grand?

Gerard Kelly, Editor.: gerard.kelly@tes.co.uk.

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Gerard Kelly

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