Scandal that school tax breaks persist

The milk of human kindness tastes a bit sour when you read the
government’s review of charity law, published last week. It
allegedly sweeps away many of the anomalies in charity law accrued
over the past 400 years – but predictably, the broom is not nearly
as vigorous as it could have been.

Among the many measures proposed is that private schools will have
to undergo regular “public character” tests to prove that they
benefit the wider community, if they want to retain their
charitable status. Half of independent schools, at present, do not
share any facilities with neighbouring state schools and two-thirds
have never made available curriculum resources such as class rooms
and music rooms. Although a survey by the Independent Schools
Council found that nine out of 10 made at least one facility
available for outside use, usually to community groups or
businesses. Miserly, of course.

Personally, I don’t care if private schools hand over their entire
establishments to “the community” for four days out of seven. By
their very existence, they are highly detrimental to the rest of
society as, once upon a time, members of the Labour Party used to

The reasons why have been well rehearsed – they cream staff and
pupils away from the state sector, affecting academic standards;
they perpetuate the class system (and will continue to do so no
matter how many plumbers’ daughters become pupils); they deprive
state schools of a middle class input that often provides a
valuable catalyst for improving standards; they distort the
fairness of entry to university. And so the list goes on.

The mystery is why this opportunity to institute radical change has
been wasted. Why should the private education system, because of
its charitable status, continue to have access to tax allowances
worth millions? Why can’t the independent sector be obliged to join
state schools which, at an accelerating pace, are opening up to the
community not out of “charity” but because it is a sensible use of
resources and a strong investment in family support?

Five years from now the odds are that in spite of “public character
tests”, only the exceptional private schools will be generously
meshing with their local communities while they continue to
perpetuate an elitism that is so terribly destructive. Home
secretary David Blunkett is the hand that has fed us this timid
reform. He deserves to be bitten hard.

1 Charities and Not-for-Profits. A Modern
Legal Framework
, available from HMSO

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