It’s clear to me that bursaries don’t help people in poverty very much

Friday’s charity tribunal decision on fee-charging schools and public benefit was claimed as a victory by both sides, although it strikes me as a loss for trustees for such schools.

One thing which struck me as a victory for everyone was a decided shift away from the idea that schools had to give bursaries to create a public benefit.

I went to a public school, and I did so on a bursary, and the process made it pretty clear to me that bursaries don’t help people in poverty very much.

First of all, they don’t tend to go to people in poverty. They tend to go to well-educated middle-class kids whose parents are a bit short of cash – or who just fancy seeing if they can pay less.

They tend, also, to go to kids who the school feels will benefit it in some ways. Schools are competing for pupils, and having top musicians, sports stars and academic high-achievers around makes the school look more attractive to folk whose kids haven’t got much to offer except cash. These kids are adornments, in exactly the same way as the wrought iron gates emblazoned with the school crest, and
they’re there, like those gates, to make the school look good. (I think I personally was a bit of a disappointment in that regard, but that’s a wholly different story.)

In addition, these are supposed to be charities which promote education, and if you want to do that, what you really want to do is encourage smart kids to spend time with other kids who need a bit more help. Schoolkids learn at least as much from their peers as their teachers, and stripping out the highest-achieving, most inspiring pupils from ordinary schools, and sticking them in a ivory tower instead, probably lowers the educational achievement of the average child in Britain.

Many public schools recognise this, and work with other schools in their area, offering them access to their resources – swimming pools, playing fields, music centres, class rooms – so that every kid can benefit. This, not the bursary, is the way forward.