Charity begins at school?

29th April 2005 at 01:00
It is not the fault of independent schools that their charitable status is to be challenged. But they have to accept that, while they might propose, Parliament disposes. So MSPs have subjected them to the test of "public benefit" - and they have to do much better in their defence than they have so far. The last-minute amendment to the charities Bill by the parliamentary communities committee last week to include "unduly restrictive" practices as part of the public benefit test seems reasonable.

After all, a charity can hardly be said to be such if it is charging its beneficiaries rather than being charitable towards them. We do not envy the Solomonic judgments which the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator will now have to exercise.

The defence of the private schools so far, as illustrated in last week's TES Scotland, is unlikely to impress the regulator. The schools send their pupils to entertain old folks, they open their facilities to the public, they put on performances in public spaces. Local authority schools do all of these. Should they be entitled to tax breaks?

The other line of defence is that public benefits from private schools are self-evident because they are in the (non profit-making, they say) business of educating children. Again, so are education authorities and so are parents who educate their children at home. Another case for levelling the playing fields of Eton?

Saving the public purse from having to educate the children of parents who opt for private education and who also pay taxes is another argument. But all citizens pay taxes, whether they benefit from the investment or not.

They include households without children, parents whose children have moved out of the school system and pensioners - not to mention a host of others who make their contribution to the public purse, in the form of social work for example, but do not make a call on it.

Independent schools have had a good run benefiting from an anachronistic inheritance. The parents whose offspring attend them will simply have to accept the inevitable: they are regarded as privileged and, if they are asked to part with a few extra hundred on top of pound;7,000 a term to plug the gap left by the loss of their school's tax perks, few others will shed a tear.

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