Government moves on private schools

by Harry on December 21, 2004

I see from the BBC that the Charities Bill is really going to force private schools to prove that they are charities in order to claim charitable status. I had heard about this before, but never imagined it would get this far. The story says that:

bq. The Charities Bill says schools charging fees will have to demonstrate how their activities help the public. The Independent Schools Council (ISC) said its members saved the tax payer £2bn a year in education costs. Independent watchdog the Charity Commission will decide on the parameters of the term “public benefit”.

Good for New Labour….



Andy 12.21.04 at 10:18 pm

Gee, thanks New Labour.
I’m in the Armed Forces and move around a lot (as you can imagine) and last year took the difficult decision to send my eldest daughter to a private boarding school.
On the plus side, the MoD helps with the fees – I only have to pay 10% of them (on top of my taxes, of course – just because she isn’t getting a state education doesn’t mean that I get that cash back). No complaints there (It works well for the MoD and is called “the Boarding School trap”, as if your child is half way through his/her school when your term of service is up and you have to choose whether to stay in or go, you’ll have to choose to stay in).
It is painful to send her away all week (we get her back at weekends), but if we hadn’t done it this way, she’d be on her third school in 6 months, with a chance of having to move again next March/April.
So I’m not going to thank New Labour for moving against private schools, I’m afraid.
(First they raid the DHE funds that upkeep our houses, then they send us to an illegal war, then they cut us back, and now they’re moving against our children. “The Armed Forces are safe under New Labour”. Right …)


harry 12.21.04 at 10:34 pm

If you read the story you’ll see that the schools will ahve to show that they merit charitable status. Presumably a high proportion of children in circumstances like that of your daughter would count? And, if the school loses CS the fees won’t go up much (I don’t have figures at my fingertips, but calculated some years ago that the financial, as opposed to symbolic, value of CS is pretty tiny), and the MOD will pay 90% of the increase.

The point of the move is i) to encourage schools actually to do something charitable and in particular to foster more integration between the two systens and ii) to stop pretending that they are charitable when they are not.


Andy 12.21.04 at 10:53 pm

I appreciate your point, but with less than 41,000 in the RAF (and the other Services dwindling as well), I doubt that this type of case counts as providing any widespread public benefit (although very beneficial for me).
Fees going up would be mitigated in my case as you point out, but not for those who don’t have assistance – so my worry is that any schools close to the edge may close, and my daughter’s school is one of the smallest out there.
Reading the Times article, and between the lines of the BBC one, it does appear that they’ll be as – well – charitable as possible when making the judgement call, so we should be OK. It’s just that I’m probably a bit sensitive at the moment (my latest quarter is falling to pieces and DHE don’t have the funds to upkeep it properly (the DHE funds from the sale of Families Quarters were originally ringfenced for maintenance, but the incoming Labour Government raided them anyway, or so I am told), the entire Iraq war affair makes us think that we were misled by our political masters, and now my neighbour at work is worrying about rumours of compulsory redundancies), so I am probably prejudiced to view such moves in the worst light. Anything that might affect my kids gets me nervous.


Peter 12.22.04 at 4:56 am

Shame on you, Harry.


Brian Weatherson 12.22.04 at 7:02 am

And that’s the hard-hitting, well-reasoned response we’ve come to expect from the conservatives over the years. Concise, to the point, and really who can complain if it’s utterly unconvincing to anyone except the author? A real dialectical point-scorer there.


harry 12.22.04 at 2:28 pm

Andy, I sympathise with your situation. I’ve been mulling over whether to write something up about the criteria the CC should use — I wrote something about this when I proposed the change about 4 years ago, but its out of date — and if I do it will definitely reflect what you’ve said. But, if you don’t mind me telling you what to do I think this is a case in which writing a letter to the Charities Commission (and ccing it to your MP and the Secretary for Education) explaining your situation and explaining why schools serving the military and diplomatic service in this way are contributing to an important public purpose might be quite a good idea; I really think this is a case in which people are going to be inclined to be responsive to good reasons (which you have). You could preface the letter with reasons why you either oppose or support the change (whichever is the case). Encourage others to do the same.

I hadn’t thought at all about your kind of case, so am especially grateful to you for bringing it up.

Peter — are you making fun of me for my ‘hurrah for NL’ comment? Fair enough — I did explain in great detail why I support this change in a pamphlet I wrote about 4 years ago, so although this post was, um, unelaborate, I have been elaborate about it before! (pamphlet still available at Amazon and the Fabian Society, by the way, just to promote sales).


Sebastian Holsclaw 12.22.04 at 4:12 pm

I know I’m probably missing something about the history of the term ‘public benefit’ in this context because in the common understanding of the phrase, wouldn’t subtantially educating a child be performing a public benefit?


Sebastian Holsclaw 12.22.04 at 4:17 pm

And a minor public benefit (not worthy of charitable status) would be if I learned to put the second ‘s’ in substantial as a root.


Matt McGrattan 12.22.04 at 4:24 pm

Presumably the notion of ‘public benefit’ doesn’t just mean ‘anything that benefits the public’.

Seems like a trivial point but there are, undoubtedly, a great many private companies which provide some form of public benefit (telecommunications companies, transport operators, etc.) but where we’d, nevertheless, not want to grant charitable status.

The legitimacy of the public schools’ case for charitable status no doubt hinges, as you’ve pointed out Sebastian, on some detailed notion of ‘public benefit’.


Matt McGrattan 12.22.04 at 4:28 pm

… Andy’s case, for what it’s worth, does seem to offer some instance of private schooling providing a public benefit that’s not already available from the state sector.


Sebastian Holsclaw 12.22.04 at 4:40 pm

Off the top of my head, I know that many people believe childhood education is a profession for which the market substantially underpays (I personally have no considered opinion on the issue). If that were true, I would think that schools would easily qualify as charities in most circumstances.


harry 12.22.04 at 5:35 pm

Matt — I’ve been thinking about this. In fact there *are* a few boarding schools in the state sector (Lord Williams, Thame, for example). But there are very few, and my guess is that the MOD and Diplomatic Service have the policy they do because they rightly think that it is important for kids to be near their parents, even if boarding, where possible, and that the two services between them simply don’t generate enough children to populate a sufficient number of boarding schools that are near to parents. So they use the private sector, as a cheaper way of getting boarding-education-which-allows-parents-to-be-near(ish)-to-children. (If they didn’t have this interest in maintaining proximity, obviously, the private sector wouold be much more expensive, just in terms of the education it provides).


dave heasman 12.22.04 at 7:49 pm

I went to a state school that had a boarding component. A lot of us boarders were service children, children of missionaries (this was the 50s/early 60s) etc. Now the school still has some boarders, and is still a state school. Only 6th formers board now, and every year the head goes to China to find some. It ups the A level points score. 15 out of 20 boarders (there were 60 of us in my day) are now Chinese. The boarding fees have to be paid by the parents; tuition fees are paid by Essex ratepayers. I think it’s a case for the District Auditor, but that may be sour grapes, as, looking around my old mates at our last reunion I realised that none of us would have been admitted these days.


Peter 12.23.04 at 1:08 am

Brian, it’s rather difficult to give a long refutation of “Good for New Labour …” Indeed, were those four words really any more hard-hitting and well-reasoned than my own?

Harry, I haven’t read the pamphlet, and I don’t plan on buying it from Amazon right now, but I suppose that you wrote one does demonstrate you have some other motivation than blind envy or braindead ideology.

I can’t quite figure out what it is, though. By paying for a better education for their kids, parents ensure more resources for everyone in the state system. By raising costs so that parents at the margins cannot afford this – basically exactly the mums and dads who live in smaller houses, and endure a worse standard of living for years, because they desperately want something better than the state offers them – you make things worse for the individuals affected and for everyone else. Even if you were desperate for revenue and were prepared to see this happen as a way to get it, you must recognise that the cost of the taxpayer funding extra school places for one-time private pupils is going to *reduce* revenue.


harry 12.23.04 at 5:07 pm


Thanks for your conjectures about my motives and non-braindeadness. I’ve yet to find a critic of private schooling motivated by envy; the envious egalitarian is an invention of dull-witted right-wing journalists. A little research (and I mean, a *very* little) might indicate to you that I have unorthodox and well-thought out and well-informed views about these and other educational issues.

bq. By paying for a better education for their kids, parents ensure more resources for everyone in the state system.

Nonsense. They exert downward pressure on tax revenues, and refrain from putting their own human capital into benefiting schools populated by less advanataged kids. In the UK anyway (a very different story in the US). The private system is for the most part abut buying competitive advantage for your own children in what is, within each generation, effectively a zero-sum competition. The irony is that the parents who use the system pay a huge premium for a very small competitive benefit.

None of this suggests that attacking the private sector should be the main aim of reform; not at all; the focuss should be on reducing child poverty and reducing inequality of income and wealth, and on imporving state schools serving the least advantaged children. So I think small measures like this are about right.

And, of course, the whole point of this measure is to exert moral pressure on the privates to actually do something for others, including children in the state sector, a moral pressure to which many of the leaders of private schools are, in fact, extremely susceptible, being basically people of good will.


Andy 12.24.04 at 10:39 am

Thanks for your advice. I’m going to just watch the situation develop first – as the articles implied that they were going to be lenient on the concept of public benefit. If it appears that they are going to be harsh on her school, then I will write to the Charities Commission as you suggest (plus my MP and the Education Secretary, as well as any Armed Forces pressure groups I can think of).

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