What is a charity? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it is "a trust, foundation, organisation, etc, for the benefit of others, especially of those in need or distress". On that basis, fee-charging schools are not charities. Their charitable status has long been an anomaly. It will remain so even after the Charity Commission has applied the new "public benefit tests", published last week to much whining from the private sector.
No matter how far these schools go to meet the commission's demands - offering bursaries to poor children or allowing the hoi polloi to join "certain lessons or other educational events" - their first purpose is to benefit intelligent, well-behaved children whose parents can afford to pay. If their mission statements were honest, that is what they would say - and it should be enough to disqualify them as charities. Oxfam does not distribute free meals to the residents of Mayfair or Virginia Water before sparing some leftovers for peasants in Tanzania.
The London School of Economics has just released some research that quantifies the benefits private schools confer on the not needy and undistressed. Researchers looked at the earning power of people educated at fee-charging schools from the 1970s onwards. Their pay was on average 16 to 19 per cent higher than those of similar background and ability who had attended state schools. This was mainly because those from fee-charging schools got higher qualifications, but many also seemed to have benefited from "monopolistic access to occupational or business networks for which the schools are the gatekeepers" - in other words, "the old boys' network".
Far from helping the needy, private schools inflict direct damage on them. First, they cream off the most able pupils and most supportive parents. Research tells us that peer group has a profound influence on educational success - perhaps more important than home background - and fee-charging schools leave less advantaged children with inferior peer groups.
Second, to educate 7 per cent of the nation's children, private schools hog 14 per cent of the teachers, who are, moreover, often the better qualified ones.
If fee-charging schools relieve any kind of distress at all, it is the distress of the middle classes at the prospect of their children falling down the social ladder. Parents see an increasingly unequal society in which the penalties of failing to get good jobs are intolerably high. They will not take risks with their children's future. Though fees have doubled in the past quarter-century (discounting inflation), middle-class parents have been willing to pay. As politicians frequently lament, opportunities for upward social mobility have diminished sharply. What is less often mentioned is that downward mobility is less than it was before the Second World War.
I do not blame parents for doing their best for their children. But it is nothing to do with charity and does not deserve a tax break of pound;100 million. That money should be used for the benefit of all state school pupils, not for a select few who get bursaries from Rugby or Westminster.
Peter Wilby, Former editor of 'New Statesman' and 'The Independent on Sunday'.