Christopher Ray: Charity Commission is suffering from selective perception
Thursday 10 September 2009
In a looking-glass world, all is not what it may seem. What people say and what they mean can be gloriously at odds. Even so, close scrutiny can expose hidden truths. The recent judgements of the Charity Commission on the charitable status of five independent schools, including The Manchester Grammar School, have revealed two such truths – one essentially self-evident, the other less so.
The obvious point is that, for all the protestations to the contrary, the findings of the Charity Commission are politically motivated. Despite all its guidance to independent schools, which placed great emphasis upon the variety of ways in which public benefit might be demonstrated, its obsession with means-tested bursaries is crystal-clear.
I agree that charities should demonstrate public benefit. We have been told, at length, that independent schools can satisfy public benefit in many ways. Yet, in this strange new world, some ways are clearly far more equal than others.
In its findings on Manchester Grammar, for example, the commission devoted far more space to our means-tested bursary scheme – just one of the ways in which we provide public benefit – than to the numerous other ways. In its looking-glass world, the commission says there are no benchmarks for bursaries, which provide just one option. But its meaning is now clear: focus on other elements at your peril.
Manchester Grammar is fortunate. We have steadily accumulated funds to ensure that we are able to provide means-tested places for more than 200 pupils from poorer families. Also important for us is the extent of our engagement with the wider community in Manchester and beyond. The school's ethos of social diversity and social action goes back several centuries. But this ethos is underpinned by our equally long-standing commitments to educational excellence and academic selection. These elements together define the school.
The Sutton Trust, the education charity, has identified one important hidden variable in this arena: a confusion over concepts of excellence and elitism in the minds of many state-school teachers, making them reluctant to recommend Oxbridge to their brightest and best. Teachers in independent schools tend not to suffer from such confusion: they know how to give the most disadvantaged yet able students the self-belief needed to succeed at the highest levels.
The continuing existence of a group of schools, successfully educating around half a million pupils (and incidentally saving the Exchequer some £3bn per annum), demonstrates the strength of independence – and perhaps explains why Lord Adonis asked the independent sector two years ago, apparently without irony, to share its DNA with the state-maintained sector.
But at such times, he and others wilfully ignore the fact that the strength of very many independent schools is founded upon academic selection.
The commission has accepted Manchester Grammar as a charity without reservation. But another important truth emerges here. The reason why many of our alumni, parents and friends support our bursary scheme is the determination to ensure that disadvantaged but able pupils may benefit from our commitment to the educational excellence which academic selection (not just at the age of 11) brings.
I am glad that the commission has been brave enough to recognise that we deserve our charitable status, knowing that within our DNA is not just a commitment to social diversity but also an equally strong commitment to academically selective education as a proven vehicle of social mobility. Yet in its looking-glass world, the commission, I fear, cannot freely admit or accept the implications of its judgements.
The writer is High Master of The Manchester Grammar School
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