Greg Meakin: The public benefit team was polite, helpful - and learning as it went along

The headmaster of Moyles Court School describes his experience under the regulator's scrutiny

Greg Meakin, headmaster, Moyles Court School
Greg Meakin, headmaster, Moyles Court School

I was barely five weeks into the job as headmaster of Moyles Court School when I received an email from the Charity Commission informing me that Manor House Trust, which runs the school, had been selected for the first round of public benefit assessment. Manor House Trust volunteered to be part of the first round of assessments.
 
Moyles Court School is a small, non-selective school with a strong, family oriented ethos and firm commitment to community and charitable aims, and I am not at all surprised that we passed the public benefit assessment.

At the same time, I am pretty sure that the two that failed - Highfield Priory and St Anselm's School - share many of these aims. So why did these schools not pass?
 
The members of the assessment team freely admitted to me that they were learning how to assess for public benefit as they went along, in the context of how independent schools operate. The Charity Commission worked with me openly and with candour. Their assessment was not - to quote Nick Mott, the commission's head of public benefit review and reporting - "forensic".

They were helpful. They offered me the use of their press office right from the outset and have been in contact when journalists came sniffing at their doors with warnings that the press could and would be coming my way. I asked for an extended deadline for submitting the school's public benefit report, due to the timing of the half-term break in autumn 2008, and they agreed without hesitation. I told them I would be addressing an Independent Schools Association conference about the public benefit reporting process, and they offered me resources to help.

After we made our submission, senior public benefit officer Louise Drew and her team, plus a legal representative, came to visit to pose more than two hours of follow-up questions. It was not the most convenient time, because it was the last week of term in December, and I did let them know I would be popping out halfway to join in the junior Christmas lunch.

They did not mind at all. In fact, I know it helped them to realise what a head's priorities are and should be. It also gave them a chance to look around with a guide and realise that we are not a well-heeled, elitist examinations factory but a small community school doing our best for local families.

But some of the suggestions from the Charity Commission regarding financial assistance are less helpful.

The notion of schools increasing fees in order to to offer a higher percentage of their income as awards to those who would not be able to afford them is bizarre. Surely raising fees excludes more people at the threshold of the affordability spectrum, creating a greater pool of people who cannot afford private school fees.

Nick Mott says proportionality is the key to public benefit assessments. One would think this favours small establishments, yet the commission failed two of the five independent schools that it assessed.

Much larger institutions with valuable trust funds or other means of financial support behind them may well afford significant bursary and scholarship schemes. Moyles Court School, Highfield Priory and St Anselm's School do not have such luxuries. So why did the last two not pass? I am not sure that the Charity Commission has the definitive answer to that question - nor is it qualified to give it.

The workings of independent schools cannot be learned or understood by a team of non-specialists pressed to write the book on public benefit assessment as they go along - however talented or well-meaning. This is no attempted slur on the team: I found them intelligent, professional and genuinely sympathetic, but they were obviously and openly learning as they went along, and demonstrated naiveté and a simplistic view that I found to be both refreshing and disconcerting.

I have doubts about the validity of the commission's findings. The small independent schools I have been involved with work diligently and modestly, employing local people who work hard to further their cause, supporting families who work just as hard to send their children to places of educational and pastoral vision. 

In these times of uncertain standards, large class sizes in state schools and questionable quality outcomes, any judgement of such charitable institutions must be grounded in sure, expertly derived and proven measures, given the potential impact on them - and by extension - the sector as a whole.

I think the Charity Commission is in an impossible situation. Schools such as  Highfield Priory and St Anselm's School, and the families who support them, should not be disadvantaged by judgements made under such conditions.

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