Private schools are doing laughably little to justify their charitable status

The taxpayer shouldn't have to foot the bill for these so-called charities

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The Independent Online

I know everyone thinks that your  average boarding school pupil’s social life is essentially a tour of the nation’s stately homes, but it wasn’t like that in my day – or not in my rose-tinted recollection, at least. There were a few comically grand individuals at my all-male establishment, certainly. One guy occasionally got a cab from his boarding house to the  classroom; another was always trailed by a couple of mysterious-looking heavies with earpieces. Much more often, though, my contemporaries were the sons of doctors, or lawyers, or accountants: well-to-do, certainly, but within the broad spectrum of what you might consider normal, and often making real sacrifices to give their children what they thought to be the best. Perhaps I’m delusional, but it didn’t feel like Made in Chelsea.

I finished my A levels just over a decade ago. In that time, things have changed considerably. The fees, which were always steep, have reached levels that seem truly obscene: yesterday, The Good Schools Guide released the results of a  survey which found that the average cost of a boarding school education had reached £27,600 a year, above the average wage, of £26,500, for the first time. To put that comparison in  context, 30 years ago average wages were two and a half times average boarding school fees. And from 2002 to 2012, average fees at private schools rose by 68 per cent, against a rise in RPI of 37 per cent.

Since very, very rich people don’t tend to be hurt that badly by a recession, such schools are often still oversubscribed, and able to keep  raising their fees almost with impunity. Meanwhile, overseas pupils count for a higher proportion of the student body than ever. More and more, those doctors and lawyers and  accountants are being squeezed out by the  children of an international class of  gazillionaires for whom the precise sums  involved are almost irrelevant.

Cry me a river, you may say. That the very-well-off will in future be marginally less advantaged than they have been in the past does not seem a cause for serious concern. We have bigger fish to fry. And you would be right. But the reason this news is troubling isn’t really to do with the deprivations of the upper middle classes so much as what this whole system costs everyone else. Private schools, it always surprises me to remember, are charities. They are therefore subsidised by taxpayers to the tune of more than £100m a year.

In itself, this is counter-intuitive, but perhaps justifiable. Education is always a laudable aim, and if private schools are making serious efforts to ensure that the beneficiaries of their mission are not just the very wealthy, they may have a case. The most obvious way for them to prove it, of course, is by trying to make sure that their fees aren’t a barrier for entry to children who would benefit from what they have to offer. And the most intuitive way they can do this is by finding ways to help them with the fees.

In 2006, the Labour government seemed to take a significant step towards ensuring this, when the Charities Act did away with the  presumption that the provision of education was an automatic public benefit – that is, it forced schools to justify their charitable status, instead of simply continuing to say that the mission to spare the progeny of aristocrats the indignities of the state sector was valuable to us all. But it left the test of public benefit to the Charity Commission.

After losing a gruelling legal battle to the Independent Schools Council, last week it issued new guidance that made the idea of private schools having to pass any serious test to justify their status a complete joke. Under the new rules, the Charity Commission will not be able to exert any pressure on schools over how to provide a public benefit to ordinary people. Instead, that will be left up to the governors of the school in question. And that means that you can expect a lot fewer subsidised places. Instead, they will be able to get away with nothing more substantial than the occasional Latin masterclass. The absurdity of the situation was perhaps summarised most neatly by a phrase from the tribunal judgment that led to that new guidance: A school’s status as a charity, the tribunal said, “depends on what it was established to do, not what it does.”

Quite how that definition is enough to justify the term “charity”, and all of the benefits that come with it, is quite beyond me. If I give a few quid to Oxfam every month, and volunteer for the Samaritans, the government doesn’t let me dodge my taxes. But that’s what’s happening here: a few minor charitable acts, and a  supposedly charitable purpose, are being  allowed as a justification for terming the whole enterprise a charity, even though the vast  majority of the work being done is for the benefit of an ever-more exclusive minority – and even though there are strong arguments to  be made that private education is an  actively bad thing.

Meanwhile, the public schools continue to compete for the business of the global elite, with recording studios and golf courses and silly uniforms. They are, unsurprisingly, all in favour of having the right to make their own decisions about what’s charitable, and we can surely expect them to set their fees ever higher. They will be foolish to do so. However iniquitous their existence, it has always been defended by the very lawyers and doctors and accountants who are now being squeezed out. The entrepreneurs from Hong Kong might have more money than them. But will they ever have their votes?

Twitter: @archiebland