Why private schools must remain charities

In my perfect world there would be no private schools - but it's not perfect, so they have to remain accountable to the Charity Commission because the alternative is much worse

Many years ago, a very youthful acquaintance of mine gleefully told me that she and a gang of mates had had dinner at a restaurant and in a fog of inebriation had “done a runner” without paying the bill. She thought this was hilarious, until I pointed out that they hadn’t thought it through: this was her favourite restaurant and, as a result of her highly questionable action, she and her pals could now never go back there again. The old adage “don’t s**t where you eat”’ sprang to mind.

I was reminded of this story recently reading yet again about the continuing controversy about the right of independent schools to be registered charities. Personally, I don’t believe that any child should be educationally disadvantaged simply because of their background. The corollary of that is that I don’t think any child should be educationally advantaged simply because they were born into a wealthy family. What that means is that in my ideal word there are no private schools – all kids have access to the same high quality of education and there is no educational segregation or advantage simply because of wealth.

However, this is not my ideal world and, like it or not, we have a thriving independent school sector and a political class highly resistant to changing that state of affairs. That being the case I am absolutely positive that these schools must remain charities, because the alternative is much, much worse. As registered charities they are required to comply with charity law and, critically, operate for the public benefit. Which means they have to account for their behaviour to the general public, the Charity Commission, politicians, voluntary unpaid trustees, the media, donors and beneficiaries. If they’re not charities they will be private businesses subject to nowhere near this level of public scrutiny and over which we will have almost no influence or ability to regulate in furtherance of the public good.

And, of course, if they lose charitable status they will be liable to tax. Inevitably, fees would rise, making them even more inaccessible and exclusive to the excessively wealthy and powerful. They will be able to “buy” internships in major companies, “donate” internships to politicians and so on. All this happens to a certain degree now, of course, but without charitable status it will be much, much worse. The pipeline to power will be even more covert and less challengeable than it already is.

It seems to me that if public schools stop being charities the consequence will be an even more elitist, unmeritocratic private and political sector than we already have. So until, or unless, our schooling system radically changes, surely it’s better to encourage and engage these schools in operating for the public benefit and support them to demonstrate that they’re delivering more than just a few bursaries for poorer children. Let’s make sure we’ve thought it through before we force them to “do a runner”.

This article also appears on Third Sector.