On one point, I agree with Sir Eric Anderson, the provost of Eton. "It would be ironic," he writes in the Daily Telegraph, "if the assisted places abolished by the Government in 1998 were to return under the aegis of the Charity Commission." That could well happen under new charity laws that come into effect next year.
In the past, it was presumed that any educational institution must be a charity. Now all charities, including fee-charging schools, will have to prove "public benefit", and should not exclude the low-paid.
Sir Eric suggests the fee-charging sector benefits the entire population, partly by educating pupils who would otherwise cost pound;5,000 a year in state schools, partly by producing "educated brains" that help us compete with India and China. He is unlikely to get away with this specious argument. You might as well plead that Waterstone's should be a charity because its customers would otherwise put a greater burden on public libraries.
A consultation document published by the Charities Commission last week makes clear that saving the state money is not enough, and the commission says benefits should be balanced against "disbenefits".
If Sir Eric quotes greater economic competitiveness as a benefit, I can quote greater social division as a disbenefit.
The commission seems likely to accept that schools such as Eton can continue as charities if they offer enough scholarships and bursaries to pupils from poor homes. Sir Eric objects that in schools which lack sufficient endowments (probably most), this could be achieved only if parents of other pupils paid higher fees. These parents would thus be charged three times over: fees for their own child, fees for other people's children and taxes for more children in the state sector.
Hard cheese, say I. My objection is different. Whether or not private schools waive fees, they will not waive their academic entry requirements.
We shall be back with the assisted places scheme which creamed off bright children from comprehensives and sent out the message that the state sector couldn't handle high intelligence. The parents who took advantage of the scheme tended not to be labourers and cleaners from council estates, but vicars, distressed gentlefolk and farmers who could declare nil income after a few modest harvests. The state sector thus lost the pushy middle-class parents that usually keep heads and council officers on their toes. Any large-scale expansion of scholarships would, I suspect, have similar results.
The Charities Commission should insist that it is not possible to show public benefit by educating only an academically advantaged minority.
Instead, each school should take over the running of a nearby comprehensive, usually the one with the worst exam results in the area, and receive the normal state funding per pupil. If in, say, five years the results are in the top 20 per cent for the nation's comprehensives - and, given the private sector's boasts, that shouldn't be hard - I would be convinced of the public benefit. Sir Eric complains that we are "sleepwalking into mediocrity". Let Eton show it can wake us up.