Burning issue: should private schools be charities?

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Following the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisation’s statement questioning the charity status of private schools TFN asked two prominent figures to explain whether they think private schools should be allowed to apply for charity status or not

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2nd June 2015 by Paul Cardwell 1 Comment


Burning issue: should private schools be charities?

“The advancement of education”

The clue is in the ​title. It is the reason independent schools are registered charities. That is their sole purpose, and when they fulfil that purpose so their charitable status is confirmed. That status is not a “problem”, any more than the young people in the schools or their families are, or indeed the many other educational bodies in a similar situation.

Only the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator (OSCR) is responsible for deciding what is or is not a Scottish charity, through a test that was designed, legislated for and voted on in the Scottish Parliament. All independent schools, unlike the vast majority of charities, have had their status reviewed and tested for the past nine years and are almost half of all the charities reviewed in Scotland. That charity test is also tougher than any equivalent in the world.

The full reports on each school’s activities produced by OSCR, and available on its website, merit much wider reading, certainly by those who claim the right to comment on the sector. The outcome has been a widening access programme of means-tested fee-assistance that amounts to £29 million each year and a wider programme of community engagement and shared facilities and staff. 

Another inconvenient truth is that that every penny spent on bursaries, teacher salaries, facilities, etc. is met from fee income from parents and occasional fund-raising, not from the state, local government or any other public purse. Charitable status also requires schools to provide facilities and services at free or reduced rates. One medium-size independent school alone calculated that the value of supervised facilities, and coaching or teaching staff, provided free of charge was £38,610 per year; another small school provided facilities for free for 426 hours last year. 

Any attempt to shift the goalposts at this stage and to hanker after a change for which could only narrow access again, and be to the detriment of assisted pupils attending those schools by choice, is retrograde and poorly-informed. It would contribute nothing to the other 95% of Scottish schools, or to the “advancement of education” or, indeed, help anyone “to get involved with their communities” – as the Scottish Council for Voluntary

Organisations wishes – more than they do already. As the facts have changed, so should opinions. It is time for us all to move on.

John Edward is director of Scottish Council of Independent Schools.


Burning issue: should private schools be charities?

For me, as for many others, among them the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, a charity test that allows elitist private schools, which serve the richest and most privileged, to qualify as charities is clearly unfit for purpose.

Just because something conforms to current legislation does not mean that it is right, and the discussion about private schools’ charitable status raises wider questions about what we understand by charity and its purpose in society.

The very notion of charity can be dangerous, distracting attention from the injustice which creates the need for charity in the first place and perpetuating the provision of charity as an alternative to tackling the root injustices - that is, charity is used as a substitute for justice, to borrow the words of Alistair McIntosh.

As the internationally acclaimed philosopher and educationalist, Paulo Freire, wrote in his landmark 1972 book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed:

“In order to have the continued opportunity to express their 'generosity' , the oppressors must perpetuate injustice as well. An unjust social order is the permanent fount of this 'generosity', which is nourished by death, despair and poverty...True generosity consists precisely in fighting to destroy the causes which nourish false charity. False charity constrains the fearful and the subdued, the 'rejects of life', to extend their trembling hands.”

To apply this to private schools, in order to express their ‘generosity’ (in the form of bursaries or community services), the oppressors (private schools) must perpetuate injustice as well’ (unduly restrictive fees and unfair advantages over state schools in terms of money and resources) and 'an unjust social order is the permanent fount of this 'generosity'. 

Oscar Wilde makes a similar point in his celebrated critique of charity, The Soul of Man Under Socialism (1891), when he writes that:

“But this [charity] is not a solution: it is an aggravation of the difficulty. The proper aim is to try and reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible.”

For any government truly committed to creating a fairer and more equal society, private schools have no place. Whilst they still exist, however, the removal of their charitable status is a moral necessity. Anything else is the perpetuation and condoning of profound social injustice.

Charity cannot be a substitute for, or a distraction from, justice.

Ashley Husband Powton is a campaigner who submitted the Remove Charitable Status from Private Schools petition to the Scottish Parliament.

3rd June 2015 by Douglas J A Roxburgh. MBE

I can appreciate Ashley's points and recognise and respect her background in being a political commentator, activist and campaigner for reform of Charity status. However, my experiences both professional and personal of both educational provisions is that the positives that Independent Schools bring to their pupils and communities is overwhelming. ( see comments in recent articles in TFN ), given the continued lack of investment within educational provision by Councils and Local Authorities, moral of staff is at an all time low as is the erosion of pension provision, remuneration, increased workload and a fall in the number of those wishing to teach. Education whether it is pre school, primary, secondary and into further learning should be as accessible and as cost effective as possible. As Council and Income Tax payers, we all throughout our working lives pay for it for our own children, as do those who have not. We would happily have our son attend our local comprehensive. However, if standards and provision had not dropped with minimal learning support that would not have met his individual educational needs, the professional advice from the Council's own Educational advisors was - go independent. Ashley, as a University graduate you will know the value of having a good foundation in learning, underpinned by a sound and competent teaching input. This and the Independent infrastructure provided enabled and empowered our son to acheive by no means spectacularly, though ' further and developmentally ' than in a comprehensive environment - that quote came from a Council Educational Psycologist. I would oppose the abolition of Charitable status to all Independent Schools though advocate as I said in my other comments mentioned above, there should be a revisit of the criteria to maintain it and this should have specific emphasis in Community involvement, joint protocols for collaboration with other schools, further education and the business community. Finally, why not enable all educational environments and institutions to have Charitable status, Independent or otherwise.