OPINION: Public schools could kill Bill

The Government's proposals for reforming the charitable status of private schools look likely to be in for a lot of flak.

Plans to compel fee-paying schools to demonstrate more clearly their public benefit have already been signalled and are expected to be included in the draft Charities Bill. Proposals may include widening access, opening school facilities for community use and increasing fee-paying schools' collaboration with the maintained sector.

But the Government faces two groups of critics - the right and the left.

The Conservatives have already affirmed their support for the independent sector, and there are those on Labour's benches who plan to oppose the proposals because they believe that private schools should not be allowed to enjoy charitable status under any circumstances.

I am no defender of the inequality that results from our two-tier education system. The 30 percentage-point difference in GSCE attainment between those attending independent and state schools remains a massive driver of unfair life chances. Any government serious about achieving social justice has to ask itself whether such differing educational opportunities, allocated on the basis of ability to pay, can really be justified.

But removing charitable status from independent schools would not wipe them out of existence. Radical reform of the education sector does not begin and end with eligibility for charitable status. Meanwhile, applying a public service benefit test to independent schools offers the opportunity to share the spoils of a well-resourced education system more widely.

Some in the charity sector are concerned that opposition to the application of a public benefit test for fee-paying schools will scupper the smooth passage of the Charities Bill. This would be a heavy price to pay. The new test is a much-needed improvement to outdated charity law and the sector is impatient to embrace reform. The Government's critics are right to call for action to address educational inequalities; but not for the price of new charity legislation. Lisa Harker is chairwoman of the Daycare Trust but writes in a personal capacity.

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