Comment: Let's not have a class war on schools

It appears that charities are allowed to be charities only for as long as their objects are politically fashionable.

Nick Seddon
Nick Seddon

Thanks to the Charities Act 2006, organisations must now meet the public benefit test to qualify for tax breaks. For schools, it looks as though this means educating the poor - last week Dame Suzi Leather, chair of the Charity Commission, told The Times that private schools are going to have to give out far more places to people on low incomes.

The thinking goes that there's a widening gap between public and private education - in 2003, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development found that the gap was wider in the UK than in any country other than Bolivia and Paraguay - and that private schools must pay. Many will not, however, be able to pay. If swathes of the independent sector go bust, the law change will have effected - as many have predicted - a radical change in the educational landscape of this country.

Of course, it is far from clear that private schools are to blame for the shocking inequalities, but this is politics, and political vendettas have no time for logic. For what it's worth, I attended a state school; what I object to is the inconsistency. Take the fact that independent schools are told that relieving public funds - saving the state the cost of educating their pupils - will no longer qualify as 'public benefit': this is precisely the argument that's been used to turn leisure centre trusts into charities.

More to the point, independent schools are told that the scope of their beneficiaries is too limited, but this is a facile accusation unless the same principle is applied to the hundreds of charities for minority groups - whether they're asylum seekers, transsexuals or opera-goers. And if you're going to put pressure on one of the most effective groups of charities, wouldn't it be fair to place an emphasis on 'benefit' as well as 'public' and audit, say, the outcomes of campaigning organisations?

The truth is, this is about class war. The commission's going to have to prove it isn't either a patsy or a poodle, and that the definition of charity isn't just what the current government will pay for. Otherwise it's going to change every election.

- Nick Seddon is an author and journalist.

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