Charitable status for fee-paying schools – An absurdity that must end

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The charitable status of independent schools is not the most important issue facing the country. In fact, it’s probably not even the 231st most important. Compared to jobs, growth, the provision of high quality public services and the vast inequalities which divide our nation, it is but a piffling distraction.

But here’s the thing:  It’s annoying.  Really annoying. You wouldn’t designate Milton Keynes as a UN World Heritage Site. Nor would you present the Nobel Prize for Literature to Jeremy Clarkson. So why do we pretend that Independent schools are charities? At 2008 prices, it costs us £100 million a year to make believe that these bastions of privilege and social segregation somehow serve the public good. They don’t.  We all know that they don’t, but we bumble along regardless.

This is a peculiar historical hangover which has long outlasted any credible justification – like fox-hunting or Michael Gove. People instinctively understand that it is wrong to give a £200 a year tax subsidy to wealthy parents who have made the choice to send their children to fee-paying schools. To put this in perspective, the introduction of the Bedroom Tax is costing some of the poorest people in my own London Borough of Southwark £840 a year. At a time when we are told every penny of tax revenue and public spending must be justified, cosy deals for the well-heeled need to come under extra scrutiny and ended when they’re found wanting.

The arguments put in defence of this creaking arrangement are delivered with Etonian confidence but evaporate at a moment’s examination. Quentin Letts tells us it is because these schools are “world-recognised bastions of excellence in our society”. So what? So are Manchester United (he said through gritted teeth). Does that make them a charity?

You’ll hear others claim that families paying these fees are “subsidising the state school system by paying twice” or that the schools offer some crumbs from the table in the form of bursaries. As Fiona Millar has argued “The idea that a handful of subsidies, – many of which do not fully cover the fees and are often offered to siblings, families of alumni and staff – should magically turn these institutions into charities is absurd.”

It’s all diversionary nonsense. What these arguments have in common is that they all avoid the central point: Private schools are not charities. Their behaviour does not comply with the common understanding of what a charity is. They are a purchased advantage, a means by which wealth and power can be transferred across the generations. If you are in favour of parents purchasing educational advantage for their children or of entrenching intergenerational inequality, fine. We can argue about that another time. But for now, don’t expect the 93% of British people who send their children to taxpayer funded schools to help out with the cost.

The final piece of this absurdity is that the Charities Commission no longer has the power to enforce a reasonable interpretation of charitable behaviour by independent schools. Following an independent tribunal decision last year the schools are now allowed to ‘self-define.’

All of the political parties, the press and the vast majority of British people say that they want to live in a society where people rise (and even fall) based on their talents and hard-work. Thanks to the excellent work of the Sutton Trust we know that the alumni of fee-paying schools are vastly over-represented at the highest levels of public and corporate life. That’s not because they are more able or more talented, it’s because they had parents who could afford to buy them an advantage.  As recently published research shows, state school pupils outperform those from independent schools at universities.  The problem persists because of informal ties between many top universities, top employers and the fee-paying schools.

Independent schools embody the opposite of the meritocratic society we all supposedly believe in, so why are we propping them up with tax breaks?

The next Labour Government must prioritise educational equality. This should start with more and smarter investment in our publicly funded school system and tackling the worrying selection practices developing out of the Academy and Free School revolution.  But let’s not forget about the fee-paying sector. Too many talented young people are having their ambitions slowed or even blocked by a system which gives the wealthiest 7 per cent an unearned head-start. We don’t need to give their families them a generous tax break too.

And let’s not mess around by setting ‘more robust’ charity tests for independent schools. None of them are charities whichever way you look at it. The next Labour manifesto should include the words “A Labour Government will remove charitable status from all schools which charge fees for students to attend them.” Personally, I would put the £100million plus this would save towards reintroducing EMA.

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