The charitable side of ... Eton College

Stephen Cook

Eton's a political football in the row over charitable status - so how's it shaping up on public benefit?

It hasn't quite been jolly boating weather for poor old Eton recently.

A tribunal tore its employment practices to shreds in the saga of Prince Harry's Art A-level, and fading firebrand Lord Campbell-Savours was at it again in the House of Lords: "May I ask my noble friend a very simple question? Does he believe that Eton is a charity?"

Like it or not, Eton is indeed a charity, and one of the oldest ones around. But its high fees, bum-freezer jackets and toffee-nosed reputation have turned it into a piece of shorthand for Campbell-Savours and others to use in the long-running public benefit argument.

Like all fee-paying schools, it has hitherto benefited from the presumption that education provides public benefit. But to preserve its charitable status and the tax breaks that go with it after the Charities Bill goes through, it will have to demonstrate benefit to a wider public than the small section of it that can afford fees of £24,000 a year.

So what does it offer? Well, 90 of 1,300 pupils receive bursaries of up to half the fees, worth a total of £500,000 a year; and there is a subsidised summer school for 120 sixth-formers from state schools, and a free residential programme for 50 pupils from the London Borough of Brent. Choral courses, rowing courses ... someone's been thinking ahead.

It would make sense to most people, of course, to stop fee-paying schools being charities and lob them some tax breaks by other means. But can you see Mr Tony (Fettes and Oxford) ever doing that? And Eton will outlast all of us, as its boating song makes clear: "Rugby may be more clever, Harrow may make more row, But we'll row forever, Steady from stroke to bow."

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