PM says she wants consultation on guidance for schools on charitable status

Theresa May says she would like it to be harder for independent schools to gain that status

Theresa May
Theresa May

The Prime Minister has said she wants to make it tougher for independent schools to prove they deserve their charitable status.

In a speech on Friday announcing the government’s plans to expand grammar schools, Theresa May said she would be launching a consultation to examine Charity Commission guidance on independent schools and public benefit, accusing independent schools of becoming "more and more divorced from normal life".

May said that between 2010 and 2015 fees at independent schools had risen four times faster than average earnings, but she did not believe the divide between "the rich and the rest" could be solved by abolishing private schools.

As part of her vision for a "truly meritocratic Britain", she said, she wanted the biggest independent schools to use their knowledge, expertise and resources to help improve the quality and capacity of non-fee-paying schools.

She said: "Through their charitable status, private schools collectively reduce their tax bills by millions every year, and I want to consult on how we can amend Charity Commission guidance for independent schools to enact a tougher test on the amount of public benefit required to maintain charitable status."

The existing guidance, published in October last year, lists collaboration with a state school to share skills and experience as an example of the kind of activity independent schools should engage in to prove their public benefit was not "minimal or tokenistic".

But May said she wanted independent schools to "go further", and those with the capacity would be asked to sponsor or set up and run new government-funded state schools, taking responsibility for ensuring their success, or fund places at their own premises for those who could not afford the fees.

She said the demands made on independent schools would be proportionate to the size or scale of the school in question – smaller schools might be asked to support state schools directly through supporting subjects like classics and further maths, which state schools struggled to provide, allowing greater access to their facilities and providing sixth-form scholarships, she said.

May acknowledged that some schools were already doing this kind of work and said independent schools had "a lot to offer" and "a commitment to giving something back to the wider community".

In a statement on its website, the Independent Schools Council, which represents about 1,000 charitable schools and was involved in long-running legal dispute with the Charity Commission that led to the regulator’s original guidance being withdrawn, said the vast majority of independent schools already engaged in partnership work with other schools and that such work was not merely "box-ticking".

The statement said the ISC was pleased May wanted the support required to be proportionate to the school’s size and said independent schools should be allowed to continue to decide for themselves what was the best way they could work with state schools.

"The reality of charitable status is complex, but we can prove our schools put into society far more than they take out by saving the taxpayer, boosting local economies and supporting choice and innovation," the statement said.

"Our schools are grateful for the financial benefits of charitable status, but this is not what motivates them to work hard in their communities."

A Charity Commission spokesman said the regulator was aware of May’s proposals and would examine them once the consultation documents were released.

He said the commission had worked closely with the ISC and others to develop the existing guidance.

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