A few weeks back my editorial took independent schools to task for not doing enough to sponsor academies (12 October). It provoked an indignant response ("Excuses? We're doing our bit, say independents", Letters, 19 October). Millions were spent annually on bursaries, it was pointed out; hours were devoted weekly to partnerships with state schools that were no less worthy just because they didn't conform to the academy model. Charity, it was noted, comes in at least 57 varieties and it is foolish to reduce it to the one that happens to be exciting fickle politicians just now. One minute they're hugging a hoodie; the next they're asking Eton to sponsor his school.
These are fair points. As is the observation that many independents lack the resources and parental support to be more generous. They cough up plenty, so why should they do more? Charitable status confers #163;100 million a year in tax breaks, which according to some is about equal to what the sector expends on good works to meet its public benefit test.
So negligible are the advantages and so onerous the burdens that Sir Chris Woodhead, chair of Cognita, once urged independents to tell the Charity Commission to take a hike and join him in for-profit freedom. Few listened. The pursuit of profit isn't what most independents consider their mission to be. So what is their purpose? What are they for?
"It's the independence, stupid," according to William Richardson, general secretary of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference. It's the ability of excellent schools to be autonomous and to avoid the malign influence of the micromanaging state. But is it? Independence is a means to an end, not an end in itself. Should Alex Salmond win his country's independence, would he hang up his claymore or would he go to work the next day realising that there was a point to his fight with the Sassenachs, namely this thing called Scotland? The point of independent schools' independence is not autonomy per se but the ability to deliver a good education without state interference to ... Well, there's the rub: to whom, exactly?
If independent schools were transparent, their mission statements would read: "We exist to provide an excellent education to those who can afford it." There is nothing wrong with that, but it hardly reeks of public benefit. Moreover, in many cases it is a complete contradiction of their founders' intentions. As Andrew Adonis argues (pages 44-45), many of our most expensive public schools were originally set up to provide for the plebs. Eton College, nursery of the Establishment, was founded by Henry VI to educate "70 poor scholars". Now, Henry was one of our more addled monarchs. But even he could have recognised mission drift on this scale.
The academies question for independent schools is not an argument about which kind of charity is most suitable, it's a challenge: come clean, 'fess up. What are you for? Do you exist chiefly to educate the wealthy, or are you there to benefit the wider community? Because if it's the former, perhaps it would be more honest to admit it, stop scrabbling around for the odd charity case and join Sir Chris's posse. Just remember to leave the fat endowments, imposing buildings and those character-forming playing fields to those for whom they were originally intended.