The new chairman of the Education Select Committee, Robert Halfon MP, is a proponent of the ladder of social justice and an alumnus of Highgate School but, despite this, has written in favour of removing charitable status from independent schools.
Third Sector readers who understand the legalities of charitable status will know that relinquishing it is almost impossible. What Mr Halfon probably means is removing the tax benefits of charitable status.
Those in possession of all the relevant facts will appreciate that charitable status helps to ensure that independent schools contribute more to the economy and to the education of more pupils across the UK. Much could be lost if the tax benefits that come with it were in some way relinquished.
It has been established over recent years that removing the benefits of charitable status would be hugely counter-productive for the independent and state school sectors and for the taxpayer. The Times commented in its leader on 4 January this year (in response to comments by Michael Gove), that, "far from closing the attainment gap, the reform would entrench it".
Charitable status is worth an estimated £150m to independent schools, but comes, quite properly, with conditions, chiefly that public benefit must be demonstrated. Every year, therefore, independent schools provide more than £350m in free places and reduced fees to children from lower-income homes, and the 1,550 partnerships that independent and state schools enter into voluntarily and as equal partners support an estimated 175,000 state sector students a year. These partnerships include new free schools and sharing of teachers – in particular in subjects where there is a shortage in state schools, such as maths, physics and foreign languages – and teaching, sport, drama, music and art facilities.
If charitable status was removed, it would substantially affect the ability of independent schools to continue to provide the same scale of partnership work, let alone extend it as they are keen to do. Indeed, independent schools have been involved in very constructive discussions with the government to increase cross-sector partnership working and bursaries even further, where state school leaders want it to happen. Additionally, those independent schools with a smaller number of pupils that do rely on charitable status,might have to close. They would then, as some former independent schools have done, join the state sector – bringing the £5,500-a-year cost per state school pupil to the taxpayer.
As research from the economic forecasting company Oxford Economics found in 2014, the saving to the taxpayer from the 500,000 pupils in Independent Schools Council schools not being in state education is £3bn, and the tax revenues generated by these schools is £3.6bn. ISC schools additionally contribute £9.5bn to the UK economy and the sector supports well over 200,000 jobs in the UK.
It’s a great shame that another attack on our sector has failed to recognise the good work that independent schools currently undertake, and the ongoing commitment to ensuring that independent schools do their bit for society, putting in more than they take out.
Julie Robinson is general secretary of the Independent Schools Council