Giving lessons: Wicked - we've got double philanthropy

Students at the Dragon School in Oxfordshire are given lessons on social responsibility and giving intelligently. But will running courses such as this help the school pass the public benefit test? John Plummer reports.

The sound of laughter and the smell of grass cut from the cricket fields greet pupils arriving at the £4,200-per-term Dragon School in Oxfordshire.

It's a sumptuous May morning, and it is about to get even better for 30 or so of the preparatory day and boarding school's most gifted pupils who, instead of learning about mathematics or science, will be taking part in a course on philanthropy and entrepreneurship.

This group of students have finished their formal primary education and are participating in a post-examination enrichment programme before going to top private secondary schools such as Harrow.

Besides philanthropy and entrepreneurship, the programme includes Arabic, classical mythology and cooking and calligraphy: difficult subjects for most 12 to 13-year-olds, but these are not your average students. The 640-pupil Dragon School is one of Britain's best prep schools. Old boys include Sir John Betjeman and Tim Henman. Prominent journalists and television presenters send their children here. Many of those who pass through the school gates will join the great and the good, so today is a rare opportunity to teach them about giving.

Teachers stress that the course isn't window dressing to impress the Charity Commission. The Dragon School has a long charitable history and even employs a director of social impact, Danny Gill, who organises school fundraising events and community activities. One charity sale alone raised £102,000 last year. "Charitable activity is part of our DNA," says Gill. "A lot of good stuff has been going on in independent schools. The public benefit test is forcing them to put it on a public platform."

For today's programme, two staff from the MicroLoan Foundation have been invited to talk about the charity's work giving loans to women in Malawi to set up their own businesses. Tom Hall, the foundation's partnership manager, begins by telling the pupils that some charities "try to make you feel bad so you give". By contrast, he says, the MicroLoan Foundation wants to tell a positive story.

To get them talking, the children are asked what businesses their parents work in. "Food," one replies. We later learn that she is the daughter of a famous chef. These kids don't need prompting to speak up: they're sharp, attentive and frighteningly confident. Nevertheless, they vanish into the sunshine the moment the bell sounds.

Class reconvenes in an IT lounge, where pupils are given business plan spreadsheets - similar to those used by the MicroLoan Foundation in Malawi - so they can think about how loans work. Soon they are discussing mark-ups, collateral and profit as if they were Alan Sugar, minus the beard and bad attitude. The message that charity should be about 'hand-ups, rather than handouts' chimes with their already keen business brains.

Gill describes philanthropy and entrepreneurialism as a natural marriage. "These are fortunate children," he says. "The school tries to encourage them to accept the idea of individual social responsibility, so if they are in a position to give, they will know how to do so intelligently."

For the foundation, getting the attention of the privileged is manna from heaven. If just one pupil persuades mum or dad to part with their cash, it could send its annual income well above the current £870,000 mark. "We don't see it as a fundraising opportunity," says Hall. "It's about raising awareness, but that always has consequences."

Naturally, the foundation hopes other schools invite them in. "It's an area we would like to get into," says Sarah-Jane Seel, the foundation's programme officer. "There is a lot to be gained for us and the kids."

But few schools take giving as seriously as the Dragon School. To have a teacher dividing his time between teaching English and working as director of social impact is unusual enough. But each age group also has its own charity of the year.

"When I came here 12 years ago, the headmaster asked me if I could coordinate things," says Gill. "The more time I have spent doing it, the more I have realised the benefit for the community."

However, 'benefiting the community' and 'providing a public benefit' are different things in the Charity Commission's eyes. The public benefit must relate to the charitable purpose, which for independent schools is the advancement of education. So the Dragon School's good work with its own pupils and the local community doesn't count if it doesn't help more poor children get an education.

Dame Suzi Leather, chair of the commission, said as much in a speech to the Independent Schools Council in March. "The key question is whether people who cannot afford the fees have any opportunity to benefit from the education you do offer, whether this includes philanthropy classes or not," she said. "So, however valuable an activity, the study of philanthropy does not, in itself, demonstrate public benefit."

The commission's final guidance is still to be published, however, and John Baugh, headmaster of the Dragon School, hopes the philanthropy initiative might count for something.

"I'd like to think that a school that claims to be a charity and supports the wider community might be seen as creating some public benefit," he says. The enrichment programme, he adds, helps children grow up with a more philanthropic outlook on life.

"But reading between the lines, I don't think this will ring any bells with the commission," he adds. Either way, he thinks the school's bursary places will definitely help it pass the test.

Whatever the outcome, charities will continue to be invited to talk to pupils. They had better know their stuff.


The Charities Act 2006 requires charities to prove they provide a public benefit. The Charity Commission issued general guidance about this in January.

In March, the commission published specialist draft guidance, Public Benefit And Fee-Charging and Public Benefit And The Advancement Of Education.

Consultation on these ends on 11 July. The commission is expected to publish the final version at the end of the year. The test could therefore begin in a year's time.

A spokeswoman for the Independent Schools Council said it was too early for schools to say what measures they were taking to meet the test.

- 'MicroLoan Foundation is different to other charities because you usually give money and that's it' - Florrie Dowley, 13 (going to Marlborough College)

- 'I was surprised when I found out our school is a charity. But I think it's good. I know we do things to help other charities' - Jamie Vickers, 13 (going to Magdalen)

- 'Introducing the principles of business is more interesting than just backing a cause' - Jessica Ockenden, 13 (going to Oxford High School)

- 'I'd be quite conservative about where I spend my money. I would not like to take risks' - Edwin Hutchinson, 13 (going to Harrow).

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