OPINION: Private education is not charity

I'm at that middle youth stage where too many of my conversations with other adults are about children and schools. Two conflicting pressures come up time and time again.

We want the best education for our kids and we want the best education system for all. So as I scramble to get my two into "good" state schools, using ruses only open to the middle classes, I consign other less fortunate youngsters to "sink" schools.

Years ago I was on Radio 4's Moral Maze and would get irritated every week as a fellow panelist would blame everything on the Government, but on this one he'd be right.

I have no objections in principle to private schools - if people want to pay then so be it - but how much better it would be if the middle classes in particular, put their collective weight behind the state system rather than opting out. You can't coerce them, of course, and Tony Blair hopes raising standards in state schools will persuade more parents to take the plunge.

However, at present, the Government allows the extraordinary state of affairs where private schools are treated as charities and so the taxpayer adds another £82 million to their business accounts. How much good could that money do in sink schools? The suggestion made this week by Blair's Strategy Unit that this bonus be looked at is therefore wholly welcome.

In my opinion, private schools are as far removed from any notion of charity as you can get. I understand charity to mean building a fairer, more equal and more just world, where those less fortunate through accidents of birth and geography have just as much chance to excel as a privileged elite. Private schools are all about maintaining that elite.

It is not enough then, as the Strategy Unit suggested, to force private schools to open their plush facilities to local people as a quid pro quo for their charitable status. Offering the plebs a peek at how the other half live has nothing to do with charity. It merely besmirches its good name.

PETER STANFORD, a writer and broadcaster. He chaired the trustees of the national disability charity Aspire and now sits on various trustee boards

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