If the impact of private schools is morally indefensible how can they be classed as charities?

Fiona Millar's picture
On Thursday the Secretary of State made a speech in which he paid tribute to the achievements of the independent sector , applauded its  old boys and girls,  observed their dominance of the arts, media, and political establishment and rounded off  by claiming "the sheer scale, the breadth and the depth of private school dominance of our society points to a deep problem in our country".

And he added "Those who are born poor are more likely to stay poor and those who inherit privilege are more likely to pass on privilege in England than in any comparable country. For those of us who believe in social justice, this stratification and segregation are morally indefensible."

The message couldnt have been more stark - private schools damage rather than benefit society as a whole. How then can they be classed as "charities"?  The 2006 Charities Act is clear - charities must have a public benefit. The Charity Commission website explains the two basic principles of that benefit - it must be definable  and and to a sufficient sector of the public.

However as the Secretary of State has rightly pointed out private schools do anything BUT benefit society. What they do is  benefit a small number of already privileged young people at the expense of the rest. The OECD has found that once social background is accounted for UK state schools actually outperform their independent neighbours, which suggests that the teaching in private schools may not be as good as it is in the state sector.

But private schools have more money, smaller classes and resources for extra curricular and enrichment activities that most state schools with limited incomes can only dream of. They also  provide top level social networks and strings to pull in a gold plated service that the rest of us subsidise via their charity tax breaks.

They are exclusive not inclusive. They work against social cohesion by dividing young people by class and family income, they also make it very hard to  challenge social mobility because they continue to give a  competitive advantage to those young people whose parents can afford to pay for it.

I agree with Michael Gove, it is morally repugnant. I look forward to seeing a new Charities Act in the next Queen's speech to deal with this.

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Tim Bidie's picture
Sat, 12/05/2012 - 16:17

Michael Gove said, about private schools:

"I record these achievements not because I wish to either decry the individuals concerned or criticise the schools they attended, far from it… It is undeniable that the individuals I have named are hugely talented and the schools they attended are premier league institutions, The arguments for and against private education have been well rehearsed over an extended period of time.'

Weakening social cohesion through dividing young people by class and income is managed very effectively by the entire educational sector of this country.

The Charities Commission approach was not upheld in:

'The recent judgment in a judicial review brought by the Independent Schools Council against the Charity Commission.

We had sought a review because the Charities Act 2006 required the commission to issue guidance "to promote awareness and understanding of the public benefit requirement" applicable to all charities.

We felt that the commission had crossed the line between promoting understanding and enforcing a particular view of the law – a view that we believed to be incorrect.
And we had good reason: it was wrong.

As long ago as 2008 we warned the commission that its approach placed it on a collision course with all charities that have to recover the costs of their services by levying charges.

With so many charities affected by legal uncertainty, we urged the commission to consider new guidance aimed at reaching the broadest possible consensus.

We offered to work with the commission to reach that consensus: that offer fell on deaf ears.

The commission reaped the rewards of its lack of engagement last month: our judicial review was upheld.

The tribunal ruled that the commission's entire guidance on fee-charging must be withdrawn, saying it was both wrong and obscure.


Only through the real provision everywhere of variety and choice in schooling will social cohesion be materially enhanced:

'Unequal educational outcomes partly reflect a complex, multi–layered and poorly functioning deprivation funding system for primary and secondary schools in England.

The implicit compensation for disadvantaged students that the government provides to local authorities is only partially spent on disadvantaged schools and students. This mismatch partly reflects the complexity of the funding system.

One way to ensure that schools spend deprivation funds on the disadvantaged student is to improve user choice for these students…..

Locally maintained schools should have the same opportunities for hiring staff and negotiating wages as academies and Free Schools…..

Entry of new schools should be encouraged even if it temporarily creates some excess capacity…..

Decisions on opening new schools should rely on the quality of the business plan and should not be left to local authorities but to another appropriate body.’


Private schools are, of course, involved in a great deal of charitable work at home and abroad:

'Face-Faw continues to support projects in a number of countries as well as in the UK. It supports projects in Tanzania, Ethiopia, Romania, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Chile - and has suported two charities with interests in many countries:Mary's Meals, and Hope and Homes for Children.'

Face-Faw can receive donations to help with its aid work on www.justgiving.com/ampleforthabbey/donate

Fiona Millar's picture
Sat, 12/05/2012 - 18:48

The facts remain that the 2004 Act states that charities must be for public benefit. The CC public benefit test still rests on the two key principles I mention in the piece. I see you are not disputing that this remains the case and the tribunal to which you refer has not altered these facts.

Michael Gove's comments make it clear that he feels the impact of private schools is damaging to the country as a whole. therefore they can't possibly provide public benefit . They provide private benefit to those who use them.

Incidentally I don't think anybody could now seriously argue that supporting other charities generally, which many state schools do too, could justify charitable status for independent schools since their charitable work must relate to their charitable objectives i.e. the provision of education in the UK. The tribunal to which you refer stated that private schools must do more than provide 'tokenistic' benefits.

Tim Bidie's picture
Sat, 12/05/2012 - 20:45


You are a democratically elected and accountable Premier with a goofy smile.

You intend to be re-elected.

You have a group of private schools, one of which you attended, requiring no public funding, that are internationally recognised as providing an excellent all round education.

The parents pay fees and also pay through their taxes for a state education system on which they make no claim.

Do you:

A. Demolish that group and increase taxes on the entire country in order to pay for the additional education expenses thus incurred by a state education system, already short of cash, about which the OECD has the following comments:

‘Despite significant increases in spending on child care and education during the last decade, PISA scores suggest that educational performance remains static……

Given the austere fiscal outlook, improvements have to come from higher efficiency rather than further spending.

Unequal educational outcomes partly reflect a complex, multi–layered and poorly functioning deprivation funding system for primary and secondary schools…...

The implicit compensation for disadvantaged students that the government provides to local authorities is only partially spent on disadvantaged schools and students. This mismatch partly reflects the complexity of the funding system.

One way to ensure that schools spend deprivation funds on the disadvantaged student is to improve user choice for these students…..

Locally maintained schools should have the same opportunities for hiring staff and negotiating wages as academies and Free Schools…..

Entry of new schools should be encouraged even if it temporarily creates some excess capacity…..

Decisions on opening new schools should rely on the quality of the business plan and should not be left to local authorities but to another appropriate body.’


B. Allow the private system to continue and concentrate scarce funding on improving opportunities for the disadvantaged in the state sector as recommended by a well known and authoritative international organisation?


C. Embark on expensive and distracting overseas adventures like claiming sovereignty over ‘Los Maldivos’?

Allan Beavis's picture
Sat, 12/05/2012 - 21:26

This is beginning to look like a lot of hot air and smoke to distract attention away from what Gove himself said. If he found the impact of private schools so "morally indefensible", he could have dedicated a fraction of the zeal he found to rush through his Academy and Education Bills to either dismantling what he now pretends are schools which have a negative impact on the country as a whole or, at the very least, getting legislation passed that would enable him to force private schools to do very much more than pay token lip service to justify their "charity status".

Instead, Gove chose to drive through policies within state education which divide society further and to bully vulnerable community schools rather than the private schools whose existence is a smug and sneering reminder of what wealth and privilege can buy for a minority. The hypocrisy of his speech is breathtaking. Since he will do nothing to curb the ill effects of private schools, we can only assume that his speech is calculated to prepare us to stomach the moment when he can jump in and take credit for the vast numbers of private schools sponsoring (aka controlling) more and more state schools. No doubt he would call this charitable. Many would see this level of control and interference morally objectionable.

Tim Bidie's picture
Sat, 12/05/2012 - 22:00

'the ill effects of private schools'

I apologise for no longer being able to take this discussion seriously.

The idea that a democratic government should, or is even likely, to demolish an educational success story that costs it nothing, but whose customers/voters subsidize a state system on which they makes no claim, is patently absurd.

There are, in contrast, votes to be had in improving the lot of the educationally disadvantaged and that is where, repeatedly, respected national and international institutions have recommended that government efforts should be concentrated.

Democracy being what it is, that, no doubt, is what will take place, sedately.

I wish you all the very best in 2015, by which stage I am delighted to say that I shall have no further direct interest in this issue.

Allan Beavis's picture
Sat, 12/05/2012 - 23:41

Democracy also means listening to the electorate. I don't think bullying schools to force them into the hands of an academy chain governed by a board unlected by the local community and parents is a good example of this government's respect for democracy. As more and more stories and evidence come forward of corruption within academies and as parents realise that Academies and Free Schools are not accountable to them or to the local authority, the electorate will realise that Gove's talk of "autonomy", "choice" and "radical reforms" were nothing of the sort but an exercise in segregation and autocratic control.

I should think that by 2015, the electorate will exercise its democratic right to vote out a government that has further enriched the wealthiest and simultaneously betrayed and impoverished ordinary people as well as the public institutions like state education, the NHS and the welfare system upon which they depend and which they hold dear.

Emma Bishton's picture
Sun, 13/05/2012 - 16:17

It isn't true to say that the private sector costs the government nothing. As Gove pointed out - the continued dominance of the private sector perpetuates inequality. A very brief glance at the Marmot review on health inequalities makes it abundantly clear that the financial (never mind the social) cost of sustaining the inequality in our society is huge both to individuals and to our health and welfare systems.

Tim Bidie's picture
Sun, 13/05/2012 - 05:37

Good luck with that, as they say.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 13/05/2012 - 09:17

Tim - you keep cutting-and-pasting the same quotes from OECD in several threads. While OECD has said that Government policies re free schools/academies has the potential to increase choice, it also says that the evidence linking user choice with raised educational achievement is mixed (see FAQs above). OECD also warned that Government policy risked having a negative impact on disadvantaged children and would, therefore, need careful monitoring.

Your point about deprivation funding is discussed on another thread.

As Fiona has clearly pointed out, OECD found that when socio-economic factors are accounted for, UK state schools outperformed private ones. The overall success of private schools in down to their intake.

Tim Bidie's picture
Sun, 13/05/2012 - 10:04

Whether state schools outperform private (which, where true, is a very good thing, except in terms of local property prices, obviously!)) etc. etc. is clearly irrelevant to the 7% of parents who, since time immemorial, have sent their children to private schools.

The private school I went to has been placed as high as fourth out of all schools in terms of value added within recent memory. This is also a very good thing but clearly not much relevant to educational reform.

I will repeat the OECD quote again and again because it clearly sets out why and where reform is necessary.

I entirely accept the, frankly mild, caveats.

The idea that you can help the most disadvantaged by incurring the cost of destroying a private education system, currently making no call on state funds but, rather, contributing to them through parents income tax, is, I'm afraid, eccentric at best.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 13/05/2012 - 10:47

Tim - the OECD found that UK state schools overall (not just those near expensive houses) outperformed UK private schools when socio-economic background is factored in. "... in the United Kingdom public schools [ie state schools] outscore privately managed schools by 20 score points once the socio-economic background is accounted for." This 20 points outperformance by UK state schools was 13 points higher than the OECD average for outperformance of public schools over private ones.


Parents have a right to educate their children privately. However, some people (including politicians like Lord Adonis) think that private schools are better than state ones simply because they are private. Adonis talked of the private schools' "DNA" being injected into the state sector. This is insulting considering UK state schools outperform private ones when socio-economic background is accounted for. There is also the intellectual snobbery which implies that private will always be best. At its worst it manifests itself in the nonsense exhibited in the Telegraph article discussed below.


Tim Bidie's picture
Sun, 13/05/2012 - 10:56

Lord Adonis is a great deal more qualified, intellectually and through personal experience, than I to comment on the educational debate in this country.

I would simply remark that no amount of comments relating to OECD score points will alter the view of many parents, from all parts of the political spectrum, relating to private schools.

Some might say that the OECD may be missing something in its analysis.

I regret that I am simply an uninformed outsider.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 13/05/2012 - 14:33

Tim - I'm sure that Lord Adonis is well aware of OECD research. The Government is equally aware. However, OECD analysis doesn't quite fit with Lord Adonis's thoughts about injecting private schools' "DNA" into the state system (which is outperforming private schools when socio-economic background is taken into account). Neither does it fit with Government policies.

The Government, backed up by large sections of the media, is pushing the lie that English state education is unfit for purpose. It is doing this by deliberately repeating the discredited PISA 2000 figures for the UK while knowing that the OECD has warned against their use for comparison. It is not point scoring to draw attention to this caveat.

Your assertion that OECD "may be missing something in its analysis" is risible. The OECD is a globally-respected institution and governments seize on its analysis to inform policies. However, if you keep reading comments on this site and follow up the evidence you will no longer be "an uninformed outsider". You might even become angry that this Government and its media allies are knowingly deceiving you.

Tim Bidie's picture
Sun, 13/05/2012 - 17:03

Janet - I'm glad to have induced some risibility in you.

The 'some' that I was referring to was the World Bank.

'Today an OECD study on school choice comes to exactly the opposite conclusion from the World Bank about the value of publicly funded choice mechanisms in education. This looks to me like a “showdown” between two the most important global institutions operating in the educational policy space. We should all question how two global public institutions can derive such very different policy conclusions from “evidence.”


Indeed we should all constantly question how these agenda driven public organisations arrive at their conclusions, and why:

'The OECD therefore must in many respects be understood as an endogenous institution in the sense that it relies on the support of its clients for its existence.

This means that for the OECD to be successful in guiding the policy debate and policy design, it must help construct an a priori ‘consensus’. In other words, in order to be successful it must achieve hegemonic status at the level of the policy discourse.'


You, of all people, should realise the importance of a critical appraisal of sources, the scholar's constant search for objectivity and balance:

'Good research reflects a sincere desire to determine what is overall true, based on available information; as opposed to bad research that starts with a conclusion and only presents supporting factoids (individual facts taken out of context).

A good research document empowers readers to reach their own conclusions by including:

• A well-defined question.
• Description of the context and existing information about an issue.
• Consideration of various perspectives.
• Presentation of evidence, with data and analysis in a format that can be replicated by others.
• Discussion of critical assumptions, contrary findings, and alternative interpretations.
• Cautious conclusions and discussion of their implications.
• Adequate references, including original sources, alternative perspectives, and criticism.'

I regret that I have never had the temperament required for teaching, nor administration.

Of course, I enjoy the single minded perversity of most columnists here but am happy to remain exogenous.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 14/05/2012 - 09:06

Tim - thank you for reminding readers of the importance of appraising sources critically. Your link to rppe is a case in point - the article was interesting, well-researched and deliberately provocative (which is the purpose behind the blog). However, I couldn't find the author's name nor the organisation behind the blog. If a source is to be appraised critically it's important that readers know who is presented the argument.

That said, the author is critical of the OECD. Nevetherless, the fact remains that governments trust its research and value its analysis. Its research documents satisfy the criteria you have listed. Mr Gove's pronouncements, on the other hand, start with his conclusion and presents "supporting factoids" - something you rightly say is bad.

One of Mr Gove's weapons of choice is OECD data but he uses it selectively. He even uses OECD data when OECD found it to be flawed and warned that it should not be used for comparison (OECD PISA 2000 UK figures).

Tim Bidie's picture
Mon, 14/05/2012 - 14:00

Surely Gove cannot be all bad. After all, he was a scholar and he supports the idea of a new Royal Yacht!

Three cheers for Her Majesty! Hip, hip......

Sorry about the rubbish link to source:

Travis Fast

Born in Vancouver British Columbia. Education BA, SFU Masters, York University Ph.D., York University (pending) Assistant Professor Université Laval Département Relations Industrielles Research interests: Political economy of labour market policy Comparative labour relations regimes History of political economic thought Development of radical political economy Hobbies: Ceramics Music Muck raking


Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 14/05/2012 - 08:28

Tim - thank you for the link to Professor Mundy's blog in which she compared the World Bank's support for private intervention in education and OECD research which found that the evidence linking user choice with educational outcomes was inconclusive.

Ms Mundy said the the World Bank was less likely to use Chile as an exemplar for private provision in education because the policy had increased stratification in Chile and had been the target of protests in August 2011 by students who wanted education to be seen as a right not a business (see link below).

Ms Mundy concluded:

"My Chilean colleagues have, like the OECD, concluded that achieving good quality education for all is less about choice, and more about good teachers."

I would second her opinion.


Keith Turner's picture
Sat, 12/01/2013 - 07:07

An important public benefit the private schools give us taxpayers is they save us money. Every child at private school is one less in the state system.

State school cost per pupil is roughly between five and seven thousand per year including capital expenditure.

This is at least double the tax benefits given through charitable status even on 25k per annum fees.

In addition the schools are employing staff who are paying taxes ( and have well-paid interesting jobs with generally talented and well motivated pupils. )

While there are conflicting views about whether there should be private schools, the cost to tax payer argument is just a red herring.

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