Independents' stay

13th May 2005 at 01:00
Fee-paying schools should work more closely with the state sector if they wish to keep their charitable status, argues Cyril Taylor

Since the Statute of Elizabeth in 1601, it has always been assumed that the advancement of education itself confers a public benefit on independent schools and this justifies their charitable status. But recently much consideration was given to passing a new Charity Act that would have required independent schools to demonstrate clearly that they satisfied statutory tests of public benefit.

Much to the relief of many schools, the plan was a casualty of the election. The Queen's Speech next week will tell us whether the Bill is being revived, but there are now second thoughts on whether a new Charity Act is needed, particularly if independent schools are willing to enter into partnerships with state schools as a way of demonstrating their public benefit. Certainly the revised wording of the definition of public benefit should be more acceptable to independent schools.

There are many ways in which independent schools can show that they satisfy their public benefit requirements. The Specialist Schools Trust, itself a public educational charity, is prepared to offer advice and help to affiliated independent schools to achieve this.

Independent schools can safeguard their charitable status (and thereby make unnecessary any new Charity Act) by:

* providing bursaries for children whose parents might be unable to pay their fees;

* engaging with the local community. This can take various forms, from allowing local people or state-school pupils to use the school's facilities, such as swimming pools, or to providing help to local voluntary organisations;

* arranging sporting links with state schools;

* providing gifted and talented summer schools for state pupils, as is being done by Eton college;

* nominating people with relevant expertise to serve as governors of specialist schools;

* entering into joint post-16 provision in partnership with state schools.

In certain circumstances they can receive state funding for this provision;

* offering a limited number of boarding places on a scholarship basis to bright students from socially disadvantaged families. St Paul's boys'

school has expressed willingness to do this;

* sponsoring either an academy or a specialist school. This can be done by providing educational support as well as giving cash. We accept that private schools cannot use the tuition fees paid by parents for this purpose but possibly endowment income can be used or independent schools can provide the educational expertise to support sponsorship by a philanthropist or a major company.

Already the Magdalen college school in Oxford is sponsoring, in co-operation with the Sutton Trust, the specialist school bid by Oxford community school. The King's school, Wimbledon, and the Wakefield grammar school foundation have sponsored several specialist schools, as has the John Lyon's charity, which is linked to the Harrow school. Sponsorship of a specialist school only requires cash support of pound;50,000 in return for which the Government provides pound;600,000 of matched funding over a four-year period.

Several other independent school bodies are sponsoring academy bids, including the Church schools' company, Thomas Telford city technology college and the Mercers' and Haberdashers' companies.

In a speech to the Brighton conference of independent schools yesterday, I invited all independent schools to affiliate to the Specialist Schools Trust to help us to raise standards of achievement for all our children by entering into partnerships with state schools.

Britain's 2,500 independent schools are providing excellent education to some 620,000 children, saving the taxpayer some pound;2.1 billion of state expenditure. Most independent schools provide a high standard of education as shown by their performance in public examinations. For example, although private schools enrolled only 7 per cent of all schoolchildren last year, their pupils totalled 37 per cent of those 18-year-olds who gained three grade As at A-level.

But in order to justify their charitable status, they can and should help all our children to receive a decent education.

Sir Cyril Taylor is chair of the Specialist Schools Trust

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