Debra Allcock Tyler: Public schools should be charitable so we can keep tabs on them

We have a better chance of making public schools socially responsible and accessible if they come within the remit of charity law, says our columnist

Debra Allcock Tyler
Debra Allcock Tyler

Apparently one of the signs of success of a columnist is how many people write to the editor in response to one of your articles. I have a feeling this article might be one of those that attracts some comment.*

I have a confession to make. Unlike many of my colleagues in the sector, I think public schools should remain charities and that we should do what we can to encourage and support them to do so.

I realise there are nuanced arguments but, as I understand it, the underlying objection to public schools is that their fee structures restrict them to wealthy kids from a certain sort of background, and those are the kids who are most likely to end up running our country, either in business or in government, which is clearly unfair and undemocratic.

But here's the thing - if public schools were to lose their charitable status, their only option would be to become private companies. It seems to me that this will exacerbate the situation.

Private companies are not subject to the same stringent rules as charities about how they operate, what they do and transparency. In theory, a private, non-charitable school could donate to political parties, subsidise placements in leading companies that ultimately lead to job offers and even exclude the 'wrong' sorts of kids from newly wealthy families; and it would have no obligation to create bursaries for the socially or economically disadvantaged, or share or donate facilities in order to pass the public benefit test.

Registered charities are under intense scrutiny. They are inspected, audited, observed and monitored by trustees, accountants, auditors, the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator, the Charity Commission, volunteers, funders, HM Revenue & Customs, beneficiaries and staff - not to mention the media.

Whatever the challenges of public schools, we have a better chance of keeping them socially responsible and accessible if they come within the remit of charity law. As it stands, public schools are under huge pressure to demonstrate that they are worthy of being charities - and we are all watching them closely.

Removing charitable status from public schools is, for me, the wrong solution to the wrong problem. As charities, they have to pass the public benefit test, so there is constant pressure on them to be less exclusive and more accessible. If the problem really is that private schools are charities, but they aren't charitable enough, making them more charitable is a more effective solution than making them private so they can do what the hell they want.

I dislike elitism, but I don't think we'll eradicate the problem by encouraging privately owned schools over which we have no control and no influence.

*Letters or parcels in response to this article containing rotten fruit or small headless mammals should be addressed to the editor, not this columnist.

Debra Allcock Tyler, chief executive of the Directory of Social Change

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