If I were Prime Minister: I would halt the charitable status enjoyed by private schools

Our series in the run-up to the General Election – 100 days, 100 contributors, but no politicians – continues with the journalist, broadcaster and author

If I were Prime Minister I would immediately call time on one of the most pernicious falsehoods embedded in society. I would halt the charitable status enjoyed by private schools.

The most famous schools in the nation were of course founded for the worst off, because there was no system for children back then. Hence Eton, Harrow and the rest of them started out as institutions specifically for poor boys who couldn’t afford private tutors. They were set up as charities for the public. This is why they are still known as "public" schools, an anachronism which bewilders the rest of the modern world, since with their £30,000 annual fees, they are anything but public.

Yet even though our so-called "public" schools have nothing to do with the worst off in society today - indeed they positively avoid having to deal with the poor, the illiterate, the unentitled - they are very keen to hang onto their valuable, and historical charitable status, which costs the tax payer more than £100m a year, thanks to the fiscal advantages it carries.

Oh, but, cry the schools, with their ludicrous posturing, we have a great community spirit. What, then, is the  "public benefit"  they are legally supposed to provide under the Charities Act?

What does this boil down to? The lending out of sports halls occasionally, a few bursaries to clever children who can help push the exam results up a bit, the educational bone or two cast here and there to the state sector (but no more, lest the paying parents start kicking up a fuss), while all the time many of the 93 per cent of British children outside the private system must suffer a public un-benefit, languishing as they must outside the charmed circle, and only watching, frustrated, as the private schools mop up the key jobs, the Oxbridge places and the Oscars.

 

We rather like employing those from our own background, which is why British society has become a ghastly roundabout of purchased advantage, where privilege and influence is handed on down through the generations wearing the same school tie.

There was a moment, in 1946, when change could have happened. I can remember a second moment, in 1997, when it could have happened again. With his huge mandate, Prime Minister Blair could have seen off the private schools and their unfair advantages by removing the charitable status. He swerved the challenge.

Yet I believe it is the moral duty of the leader of our country to provide the best possible start for the children of our nation. That start is being denied for the majority of our children by a system of educational apartheid generated and promoted thanks to the absurd and immoral presence of the charitable status. 

They are allowed to flourish under a lie. They enjoy calling themselves "independent". Well, let them be independent of the charity begging bowl.

I would cut their tax avoiding ribbons immediately and see how they flourish then. Most would go out of business. The remaining few would survive only as finishing schools for the children of oligarchs and aristocrats, an anachronism as quaint and irrelevant as elocution academies. Would we miss them? Do we miss the time when women were not allowed to vote, or houses were illuminated by gas lamps?

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