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'

Voices
The Sumatran tiger, endemic to the Indonesian island of Sumatra, is an endangered species
voicesJonathon Porritt: The wild tiger population is thought to have dropped by 97 per cent since 1900
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him
musicIndie music promoter was was a feature at Carter gigs
News
news
Arts and Entertainment
Story line: Susanoo slays the Yamata no Orochi serpent in the Japanese version of a myth dating back 40,000 years
arts + entsApplying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
Performers dressed as Tunnocks chocolate teacakes, a renowned Scottish confectionary, perform during the opening ceremony of the 2014 Commonwealth Games at Celtic Park in Glasgow on July 23, 2014.
news
Life and Style
Popular plonk: Lambrusco is selling strong
Food + drinkNaff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
News
Gardai wait for the naked man, who had gone for a skinny dip in Belfast Lough
newsTwo skinny dippers threatened with inclusion on sex offenders’ register as naturists criminalised
News
Shake down: Michelle and Barack Obama bump knuckles before an election night rally in Minnesota in 2008, the 'Washington Post' called it 'the fist bump heard round the world'
newsThe pound, a.k.a. the dap, greatly improves hygiene
Arts and Entertainment
La Roux
music
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Fellows as John Shuttleworth
comedySean O'Grady joins Graham Fellows down his local Spar
News
people
News
Ross Burden pictured in 2002
people
News
Elisabeth Murdoch: The 44-year-old said she felt a responsibility to 'stand up and be counted’'
media... says Rupert Murdoch
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Extras
indybest
Sport
Arsenal signing Calum Chambers
sportGunners complete £16m transfer of Southampton youngster
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

Horticulture Lecturer / Tutor / Assessor - Derbyshire

£15 - £18 per hour: Randstad Education Nottingham: As a result of our successf...

Retail Lecturer / Assessor / Tutor - Derbyshire

£15 - £18 per hour: Randstad Education Nottingham: Randstad Education are succ...

Business Studies Tutor / Assessor / Lecturer - Tollerton

£15 - £18 per hour: Randstad Education Nottingham: Randstad Education are succ...

Year 1 Teacher

£12 - £90 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Randstad Education require a year ...

Day In a Page

The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them altogether

Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

Jonathon Porritt sounds the alarm
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on