Opinion: Public school, private benefit

There has been much talk in the House of Commons recently of 'public benefit' after the publication of the draft Charities Bill. It's one of those feel-good phrases that goes to the heart of what we in the third sector do, but sadly most of the talk in Parliament was over the retention by private schools of their charitable status under the pretext that they do something of public benefit.

I know I have written about this before, but I find it puzzling why we do not have a decent debate in this country about the potentially negative effects of private schools on our society. It was once a hot political issue, but today any talk of curtailing elitist schools is regarded as hopelessly idealistic. Yet for anyone committed to a fairer society, there is a powerful case to make that by having charitable status, private schools are, in effect, sucking money out of state coffers that could benefit the vast majority of pupils.

What exactly is the public benefit of private schools? The draft bill defines it narrowly - private schools that occasionally deign to allow the rest of us to use their pristine sports facilities. It sounds like a Victorian open day at the local manor house. But let's think about public interest in the wider sense. Private schools thrive by creaming off the best teachers and the brightest pupils and giving the latter a head start in education.

That's why parents are prepared to pay.

Yet education is the best chance any civilised society possesses to iron out early the random inequalities and disadvantages of birth that, if left untackled, create intractable social problems further down the line.

If we want all children to have a chance of fulfilment, we need a state system that is flexible and well funded and that can cater for all. That is public benefit - not allowing a few fortunate parents to jump the queue and pay school fees.

This is a basic and hugely important question of social justice, yet our politicians shy away from even the small move of removing charitable status for private schools. Shame on them.

Peter Stanford is 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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