It’s impossible for schools to have more than tokenistic regard for the poor

It’s a well-known fact that cats always land on their feet, and toast always lands butter-side down. With the obvious result that if you tie a slice of toast to the back of a cat, you create an anti-gravity machine.

It’s a bit like the situation that trustees of independent schools find themselves in, following the recent confirmation, via the Charity Tribunal, that schools must have more than a “token or de minimis” regard to the poor.

In my opinion, it’s impossible to achieve.

If you’re the trustee of an independent school, you’re bound to feel answerable, primarily, to the parents of the kids at your school, who want the best possible education for their kids. By extension, this must be a better education than that of the less privileged pupil down the road. People would hardly pay £12,000 a year for their kids to get educated at a school if you can get the same quality of education elsewhere for free.

But you are also answerable to the law of the land, which tells you that you must have regard for the poor. You must, in other words, spend a portion of the school fees those parents provide on supporting the education of the less privileged pupil down the road, even though making sure your pupils have a better education than him is the reason you exist.

After all, while education is without a doubt a collaborative process, it is also a competitive one. We may argue that our schools exist not just to teach to the exam, but to turn our children into better human beings – more rounded individuals, with compassion for their peers and an assortment of life skills.

But in practice, education is seen by schools and parents – particularly by public schools and public school parents – as a race for the best grades.

The ISC has expressly argued from day one that provision for the poor is an unnecessary nonsense – schools, they say, are charitable just by purposes of providing education.

I don’t think it’s possible for fee-charging schools to have more than tokenistic regard for the poor and still do what they exist to do.

Certainly you can benefit the poor by allowing the hoi polloi to use your music centre, your swimming pool, and your gym, and handing out a few bursaries to promising chaps who you think can add something to the atmosphere in the common room.

But you can never say: “We exist to help the poor”. You can only ever say: “We exist to help the rich and we’ve helped a few poor folk out while we’re at it” – which sounds pretty tokenistic to me.

The law now, in effect, requires schools and the Charity Commission to pretend that this is not the case, but in my view it can never be more than an elaborate fiction.