We have a gun at our heads, says chair of independent schools body

Mike Buchanan, chair of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference, tells its annual gathering that the government is using charitable status as a 'blunt instrument' to beat independent schools

Mike Buchanan
Mike Buchanan

Telling independent schools to partner with state schools or lose charitable status is tantamount to pointing a gun at their heads, the chair of the umbrella body for independent schools’ headteachers has said.

Mike Buchanan, chair of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference, told the organisation’s annual conference yesterday that the government was using charitable status as a "blunt instrument" to beat independent schools with.

His comments came after the Prime Minister Theresa May said in a speech last month that she wanted to make it tougher for independent schools to prove they deserve their charitable status and called on them to do more to support state schools.

She said she would be launching a consultation to examine Charity Commission guidance on independent schools and public benefit.

Speaking at the event in Stratford-upon-Avon yesterday, Buchanan said: "Using charitable status as a stick to beat us with is both a blunt instrument and one that is unlikely to hit its target.

"Indeed, it’s likely to erode some of the excellent charitable activities painstakingly built up over many years."

He said independent and state schools "could not make our relationships work with a gun pointing at our heads" and compared such an arrangement to a forced marriage, saying it would be "fraught with practical difficulties" and "unlikely to work".

May said the demands made on independent schools would be proportionate to the size of individual schools. Those with the capacity would be asked to sponsor or set up and run new government-funded state schools, or fund places at their own premises for those who could not afford the fees, whereas smaller schools might be asked to provide access to their facilities.

Buchanan said he did not view May’s challenge as an attack on the independent school sector, but it was "misguided" because in many cases independent schools were already working with state schools and were best placed to know what would be effective and sustainable in their local contexts.

"Quite frankly, we cannot not solve the structural problems in education that taxpayers entrust to the government – to the tune of £86bn each year – nor should we be expected to," he said.

He said independent schools were already accountable to the Charity Commission and the charitable tax relief independent schools were granted offered good value for money to the government.

"In terms of money in, money out, the Exchequer wins hands down," he said.

"According to a detailed report by [the forecasting organisation] Oxford Economics, the tax relief for most independent schools – £150m a year – is dwarfed by the £3.6bn per annum we generate in tax revenue and, even more, by the £9.5bn total value we add to the UK economy."

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