Auriol Stevens: 'Private schools must change – or we all suffer'

'There is no more damaging divide in society today than this one in economic and social terms." Thus Anthony Seldon, master of Wellington College, described the state/independent school split this summer.

It has been getting worse. The rich have been getting richer, and less apologetic about it. Education is used to entrench advantage into the next generation. Private schools raise fees above the rate of inflation to provide better facilities and smaller classes than state schools.

Selecting financially, academically and socially, private schools excel at getting students through traditional academic exams, giving them a head start in the competition for places at top universities. Social mobility is thwarted, creativity is stifled and resentment flourishes.

This is "utterly avoidable", says Seldon. He may be unduly optimistic. But there is a new willingness to confront divisions that have worried educators for 150 years.

Schools are under financial pressure. The credit crunch is biting. Some schools are closing. William Hulme's in Manchester and Belvedere in Liverpool have given up fees and selection to become academies. Costs will rise further. The Charity Commission is moving carefully but determinedly to make sure the Charities Act 2006 is effective. The act removed the presumption that providing education was itself a charitable activity. Now those claiming charitable status, and the tax breaks that go with it, must demonstrate – not just assert – the "public benefit" of what they do.

Most of the 100 schools surveyed recently by Zurich Financial Services are putting more money into bursaries to help people who can't afford the full fees. Some plan to raise fees to "fund measures allowing them to prove their charitable status". Almost half are opening up lessons to neighbouring schools or thinking of doing so.

The Independent Schools Council, representing 1,450 fee-charging schools, from the grandest to those providing for children with special educational needs, is busily "spreading good practice" while reaching for lawyers to warn the Charity Commission against too robust an interpretation of the act.

There is a dilemma for the schools. As they become more expensive but less exclusive, the benefits they sell become less obvious. So customers defect or mix and match – state primary, state sixth form, a few years boarding.

Meanwhile, the Government's academies programme, now enjoying cross-party support, offers an escape route. In a sign of changing times, the Rev Tim Hastie-Smith, chairman of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference, a club for some 250 heads of the poshest schools, which holds its annual meeting next week, is leaving the fee-charging sector to run a new academy in Kettering.

He shares Anthony Seldon's view of the social divide. "It's one of the biggest problems with the independent sector," he said earlier this year. "Many independent heads, myself included, are actually very uncomfortable with the word 'charitable' being applied to our schools. We are businesses. We do make money. I can't pretend that an institution which is providing a very expensive education and is necessarily excluding a huge segment of the population is a charity."

Those with the interests of state schools at heart, such as the Education Review Group, which met the Charity Commission last week, are pressing the latter to make sure "charity" means something in future. They want the commission to use its powers to produce greater transparency. Until now, most charities have not had to account openly for the public benefit of their charitable activities.

They also want those activities to be carefully scrutinised, arguing that scholarships and bursaries, which strip talented, well-motivated children out of state schools, damage the public interest by harming the schools attended by the majority of children.

Full-cost bursaries, on the other hand, enabling looked-after children or children from dysfunctional homes to benefit from small classes and/or boarding, could be useful. Specialist teaching in subjects where state schools lack qualified staff, for example in science and maths, should count as benefiting the public, as should opening up their Combined Cadet Force corps to pupils from state schools. Use of swimming pools for a charge should not count as a benefit. Helping to develop the 14 to 19 diplomas to suit the full range of students, including those in independent schools, would prevent the divide becoming bigger.

Faced with these pressures, some schools may want to throw in the towel. But it is not an option. They cannot ask to be removed from the register of charities, forego the tax breaks and become businesses because their assets have been acquired through charitable giving and remain charitable for ever.

Many of the schools in question were founded to educate the poor. If they could now think imaginatively about how to renew their charitable purpose, they could begin to bridge this most damaging divide

The writer is a former editor of 'Times Higher Education'

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvOnly remaining original cast-member to leave long-running series
Arts and Entertainment
Game Of Thrones
Uh-oh, winter is coming. Ouch, my eyes! Ygritte’s a goner. Lysa’s a goner. Tywin’s a goner. Look, a dragon
tvSpoiler warning:The British actor says viewers have 'not seen the last' of his character
Sport
The Etihad Stadium, home of Manchester City
premier league

The Independent's live blog of today's Premier League action

News
Rumer was diagnosed with bipolarity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder: 'I was convinced it was a misdiagnosis'
peopleHer debut album caused her post-traumatic stress - how will she cope as she releases her third record?
Life and Style
Couples have been having sex less in 2014, according to a new survey
life
Voices
Holly's review of Peterborough's Pizza Express quickly went viral on social media
voices
Sport
Radamel Falcao was forced to withdraw from the World Cup after undergoing surgery
premier leagueExclusive: Reds have agreement with Monaco
Arts and Entertainment
musicBiographer Hunter Davies has collected nearly a hundred original manuscripts
Sport
A long jumper competes in the 80-to-84-year-old age division at the 2007 World Masters Championships
athletics
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: 'Time Heist' sees a darker side to Peter Capaldi's Doctor
Life and Style
Walking tall: unlike some, Donatella Versace showed a strong and vibrant collection
fashionAlexander Fury on the staid Italian clothing industry
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

KS1 Primary Teacher

£100 - £150 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Qualified KS1 Supply Teacher re...

KS2 Teaching Supply Wakefield

£140 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Qualified KS2 Supply Teacher r...

Year 1/2 Teacher

£130 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Qualified KS1 Teacher required,...

Primary Teachers Needed for Supply in Wakefield

£140 - £160 per annum: Randstad Education Leeds: Qualified KS1&2 Supply Te...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam