'Charitable' independents, it's time to be rebranded

21st September 2012 at 01:00
Drop 'emotive' label, says prep schools' leader, but others disagree

They are among the oldest charities in the country, with histories stretching back many hundreds of years. But according to one leading private school headmaster, it is time to rebrand independent schools.

The word "charity" should be dropped from all talk of private education as it provokes an "emotive" response from opponents who do not see schools doing enough to support the poor, argues Nicholas Allen, chair of the Independent Association of Prep Schools (IAPS).

Instead, the likes of the King's School, Canterbury (which dates back to 597), and Eton College (founded by Henry VI in 1440) should describe themselves as "not-for-profit" organisations.

Untangling independent schools from "the great charities which do so much good work in relief of suffering and poverty" would mean schools could operate without "fighting a running battle to justify their tax status to politicians and the wider public", Mr Allen will say at the IAPS annual conference next week.

Mr Allen's comments come after a long-running battle between independent schools and the Charity Commission over what schools should do to pass public benefit tests and retain their charitable status and tax breaks worth about #163;100 million a year. The proposal also follows a letter sent this week by Barnaby Lenon, chairman of the Independent Schools Council (ISC), to the Charity Commission expressing concerns that independent schools are seen as poor relations to "proper charities". Mr Lenon called on the chair of the commission to publicly endorse independent schools as charities.

Mr Allen, head of Newton Prep in London, will say in his speech that although schools have been given more freedom in how they demonstrate public benefit, they still face "unrelenting" political pressure to do more.

"Would it not be clearer and more honest for the sector to adopt a different terminology, which more truly reflects how most of our schools operate?" he will ask. "I would suggest that the term 'not-for-profit organisations' far more accurately reflects the nature of our schools. It is not an emotive term and reflects the fact that surpluses, under current legislation, have to be reinvested in the institution."

In his letter, Mr Lenon, a former headmaster of Harrow School in London, said that independents represent a "substantial, established part of the charitable sector".

"In addition to the intrinsic value of the education they provide, those schools and their pupils strive to serve and to provide for others within their communities in all manner of ways, often unheralded but widely valued," he wrote. "But we are concerned that it has become commonplace to dismiss independent schools as poor relations to 'proper' charities."

He added: "A narrative that regards charitable independent schools as somewhere between historical anachronisms and tax-avoidance shelters is deeply corrosive."

Independent schools have come under sustained pressure to do more to support the state sector, with politicians of all parties calling on them to back academies and free schools. Stephen Twigg, shadow schools secretary, has said that a future Labour government would act to strip private schools of their charitable status if they fail to serve their communities.

Mr Lenon wants the Charity Commission to do more to support independents. "This is not to ask you to take a political or ideological stance on independent education... but rather to endorse publicly the right of independent schools to take their place on the commission's register of charities," he wrote.

The letter accompanied the ISC's submission to an ongoing consultation on new draft guidance on public benefit. The guidance, written after the ISC won a judicial review challenging the emphasis on the provision of bursaries to the poor, gives trustees more freedom in how they provide a wider public benefit.

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