News in focus: Tripe and barbarism on school menu

Annie Kelly

While some schools resent the idea, others can't wait to demonstrate their public benefit.

Anyone who hasn't got beyond the newspaper headlines about the Charities Bill of late could easily have gained the impression that the new legislation is all about Eton College.

The question of whether private schools should retain their charitable status has dominated press coverage and focused political attention on conflicting accounts of how public benefit tests would work, famously described by Alan Milburn in a Parliamentary committee as "a dog's breakfast".

As the Bill stands, independent schools would not automatically lose their charitable status. But in order to retain it, all would have to pass a public benefit test demonstrating that they operate for the benefit of not only their fee-paying pupils, but also the wider public. This has outraged some schools, who resent their charitable status being called into question.

"The provision of education or the spread of knowledge is regarded as a charitable activity in every civilised country in the world," says Steve Patriarca, headmaster of William Hulme's Grammar School in Manchester.

"If the UK were to break with this, it would be a further example of utilitarian barbarism. We have been described by the inspectors as an outstanding example of a harmonious multi-racial community which achieves outstanding personal, spiritual and moral development. I don't know many state schools in Manchester that can claim that."

The Independent Schools Council (ISC) takes a more measured view, but argues that independent schools are clearly working to the public's benefit by offering education not just to those who can afford it, but also to children from all walks of life.

"More than 30 per cent of children in independent schools get help with fees, and the tax benefits of charitable status are a drop in the ocean compared to the amounts given back in fee assistance," says Jonathan Shephard, the council's general secretary. "For every £1 received in tax breaks from charitable status, independent schools give back £3 in fee assistance."

The ISC claims that its members save the taxpayer £2bn a year by educating 500,000 children. It believes that this figure, along with an "outstanding contribution to education standards and community action", will allow many schools to "sail through" a public benefit test.

Christopher Ray, high master at the Manchester Grammar School, is confident that his school will pass the test because of its high proportion of assisted students, coupled with a programme of pupil partnerships with local comprehensives and its opening of facilities to the wider community. He is a fan of public benefit tests and believes they will help correct misperceptions about independent schools.

"Passing a public benefit test will serve to validate these schools in the eyes of their local communities and more widely within society," says Ray. "We welcome the opportunity to demonstrate the ways in which we serve our community."

But the confidence of such schools in their contribution to the greater good of society isn't shared by all. Labour peer Lord Campbell-Savours is virulently opposed to the idea of private schools remaining charities.

And he describes claims of community action by schools as "utter tripe".

"The proposition that public schools work for public benefit as charitable organisations is ludicrous and makes a laughing stock of charity law," he says. "It's been a complete hash. The Charity Commission has completely distorted the interpretation of public benefit to allow independent schools to remain charities. I predict this will lead to the whole area of charity law having to be overhauled once someone realises how preposterous this is."

Shane Rutter-Jerome, secretary of the Association of Governing Bodies of Independent Schools, takes a more pragmatic approach. The scrutiny committee for the Charities Bill and the subsequent government response left the issue of what happens to a charity's assets if it loses charitable status unresolved, he points out. This means that independent schools do not yet know what would happen to their property and other assets if they were to fail the public benefit test. Rutter-Jerome believes that this could be enough to scare all independent schools into action.

"If we have to start reassessing the worth we bring not only to our pupils but to the wider community, then this can only be a positive outcome," he said. "The new Charities Bill has led to most independent schools working on a public benefit statement, and I think what we'll see is schools starting to be more accountable, costing up the community work that they do and having to really ask themselves whether they're doing enough."

The answer will only come when the Bill goes through and public benefit tests are drawn up and applied. Will anyone fail? And if nobody does, how credible will the tests be?

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