Editorial: Commission was slow off the mark over conflict of interest on schools

Senior staff at the Charity Commission think they should be congratulated for taking and acting on legal advice that its chair, Dame Suzi Leather, should withdraw from decisions about what should be in its forthcoming guidance on public benefit in relation to private schools and, in due course, about whether individual schools do or do not provide such benefit.

Stephen Cook
Stephen Cook

The advice was sought because Dame Suzi has a child at a fee-paying school.

It's not necessarily the case that people who send their children to private schools think private education is entirely a good thing and in no need of reform, but such fine distinctions rarely count for much on such an emotive subject, and it would have looked bad if she had not withdrawn. But she has withdrawn, and for that congratulations are indeed in order.

But did the commission not leave it rather late to check the position? Once the Charities Act became law last November, the watchdog began finalising the draft guidance on public benefit, which was published for consultation in March this year. The draft guidance contains extensive discussion of the position of fee-charging charities, including private schools, and including proposals that, for example, bursaries should count towards public benefit and that benefits must be specifically educational. There has been no suggestion that Dame Suzi was not involved in all that. Only when the consultation was over, however, did the commission decide to seek legal advice about her position.

It argues that there was no need to check the position until the time when actual decisions loomed. There is a material difference, it implies, between suggesting what should be on the menu and deciding finally what will be on it. This is a distinction that will not convince everyone, especially in circumstances where the commission's suggestions are likely to be by far the strongest determinant of the final choices. The conclusion will inevitably be drawn in some quarters that the advice should have been taken at the beginning, and that the commission's explanation about why it was not taken until July sounds like the rationalisation of an oversight. It is quite possible that advice taken last November would have been similar to that obtained in July, and that Dame Suzi should have withdrawn at the start of the entire process rather than halfway through.

It remains to be seen whether anything more definitive emerges about this. Whatever happens, the situation is hardly ideal - especially in the context of the news that six out of the nine Charity Commissioners went to independent schools themselves and a second among them might yet choose to send her child to a private school. Unless it emerges that some of them are still closely involved with their former schools in some way, it is a bit far-fetched to suggest that they should all withdraw from decision-making, like Dame Suzi: we expect them, from their track records, to be to able to transcend their backgrounds and take an objective view.

But how comfortable is it that, while 7 per cent of children go to private schools, 66 per cent of the people who will take decisions about the public benefit of such schools are former pupils of them? It's an imbalance that is all too common at the senior levels of British institutions.

Stephen Cook is editor of Third Sector

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