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'

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Belong: Volunteer Mentor for Offenders

This is a volunteer role with paid expenses : Belong: Seeking volunteers who c...

Recruitment Genius: Experienced Health & Safety Support Tutor

£19000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Reach Volunteering: Trustees with Finance, Fundraising and IT skills

Voluntary and unpaid, reasonable expenses reimbursable: Reach Volunteering: St...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive - OTE £45,000

£18000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This market leader in the devel...

Day In a Page

Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent