Stephen Twigg, the shadow education secretary, has dared to raise the issue of removing the charitable status of independent schools.
Like many a Labour MP before him, it rankles with him that fee-paying schools benefit from the many perks of charitable status yet many appear to be failing to fulfil their charitable objectives.
Supporters of independent schools quite rightly point out that parents who educate their children privately pay twice for schooling: they pay the independent school fees at the same time as supporting the state system through taxation. In fact, parents who send their children to independent schools are actually saving the state system money by removing their children from it, or so the arguments goes. Why, therefore, shouldn’t private schools receive some sort of state kickback through reduced taxation and the other benefits that charitable status brings?
The short answer is that few independent schools undertake what many people would consider sufficient acts to justify charitable status: does providing a limited number bursary places, offering the occasional use of your sports facilities to local state schools and similar such activities really justify their presence on a register of charities?
Twigg wants to introduce new legislation to ensure that independent schools fulfill their charitable objectives and for the Charity Commission to get “much tougher” on offenders. But perhaps the solution might lie outside of the charity sector. Why not remove all of independent schools from the Charity Commission’s register and create a new regulator just for them, overseen, for example, by the education inspectorate Ofsted? All independent schools are required to register with the Department for Education so the basis of the new register is all ready in place.
Independent schools would lose their charity status – and its related perks – but would have a stronger case for the state to make a direct contribution their costs. The average cost of a place in a state school is around £4,500 a year, which in theory could go straight to the independent school to make up for the loss of charitable status and related benefits.
The economic case would have to be looked at carefully: the creation of a new regulator wouldn’t be cheap and taking large sums of state money directly from the state education system could have a destabilising effect. But the alternative is to continue to allow independent schools to muddy the definition of what constitutes a charity. If certain types of organisations consistently struggle to justify their charitable status, then broader questions have to be asked about whether they deserve it at all.