Joan Bakewell: There's nothing charitable about buying privilege

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The Independent Online

Suddenly lady bountiful is at the gates, eager to demonstrate her generosity to those not born to such wealth and privilege as she enjoys. The public schools are in a real tizz about any possible loss of charitable status that might be consequent on new guidance issued this week by the Charity Commission.

One of their number, in the person of Dr Anthony Seldon, headmaster of Wellington College, leapt in with a rallying cry, daring to use the word "apartheid" to describe the division of this country's education between the public and private sectors.

He is right in many ways: the private sector that serves some seven per cent of Britain's children offers them better teacher/pupil ratios; better facilities; many of the best teachers; the best results and the best university places. That is what parents pay for – their money buys an advantage for their children that their brains alone might not merit.

The ethos of public schools convinces even thickos that they are born to lead, and guarantees a future network of contacts and a range of influences to which even the brightest kid on the inner-city block cannot aspire. There is nothing charitable about buying this exclusive privilege for your offspring ahead of others.

Public schools know this full well and recognise that in this day and age such high-flown exclusivity is not on. They may not have seen Lindsay Anderson's legendary film If... but they are familiar with the rumble of tumbrils that signalled the revenge of the poor against the privileged. What's more, the best costs money. Playing fields, science labs, fully functioning theatre spaces, all the gorgeous appurtenances of such schools, need careful budgeting. Rich parents won't simply cough up higher and higher fees. Tax benefits are part of the financial balance. So where does the charity come in?

Of the several routes by which the less well-off have traditionally accessed these privileges, the direct-grant system has been abolished, and bursaries, long offering opportunity to working-class guinea pigs, are now seen to cream off the best, thus leaving state schools without their top talents.

Seldon's latest suggestion is that public schools should each sponsor one of the new academies, as his school, Wellington, is hoping to do. But again, there is a whiff of de haut en bas in such a move – Marie Antoinette doling out slices of yummy private education to the mob condemned to the humble bread of comprehensives. Only if the public school and academy shared teachers, facilities and, yes, even pupils, would some sort of parity prevail. But that's not what parents want – indeed they pay to keep the mob out.

The Charity Commission now wants all charities to re-examine the actual public benefit they provide. Of the total 992 responses to their consultation, by far the greatest number – 524 – came from religions. It has been among the founding principles of most religions that charity, the giving of alms, the helping of the poor, is a religious duty. Islam, Christianity, Judaism all take that responsibility very seriously. But charity in that context means the handing over of money directly to the poor... to the beggar, the destitute widow, the blind man. It was not conceived as a means of lessening the burden of fees on the already rich.

That's why the charity commission is quite right to re-examine what constitutes the public benefit. Is a religion that mobilises its resources to campaign against changes to the abortion law, or to the Assisted Dying legislation, for the public benefit? And then there are the arts. What public benefit is it to have the Royal Opera House putting on sumptuous productions for a range of ticket prices reaching into the hundreds of pounds? What public benefit is there in three South Bank auditoria of the National Theatre? But I believe the arts case can be well made.

Britain's leading companies are flagships for a rich and varied network of similar theatre, music and performance arts around the country, setting the standard, sharing personnel and commissioning new work that infiltrates the rest of the country's culture directly.

What's more, to their credit, many companies have been busy extending their reach as a condition of earning the grant, including the the Royal Opera House and the National Theatre. Every theatre, orchestra and art gallery has such schemes and so fervent have been recent efforts that it has taken the McMaster Report on the arts to remind everyone that excellence should be their prevailing objective. Yet even he goes on to recommend arts companies hold a week of performances entirely free to everyone. At a time when the arts appear to be in turmoil, it is worth registering how consistently they seek the public benefit, both in their choice of work, their policy towards their audiences, and, above all, in the creation of a national culture that touches all lives. The arts don't say "No" to anyone.