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Terence Blacker

Terence Blacker: A swim in a private school's pool won't upset our educational apartheid


It has been a positive week for British education – or at least for the 7 per cent of British education which now seems to speak for the rest. The Charity Commission, following a legal challenge by the Independent Schools Council, loosened the criteria by which private schools earn their status as charities, with all the tax breaks which that entails.

It is important, say the new guidelines, that charities/fee-paying schools should offer "public benefit". They can do that by letting local communities use their playing fields or swimming pools now and then, or granting bursaries to non-paying pupils, maybe staging joint sports days.

Private education is, in 2012, improving and is more embedded than ever in the heart of the British establishment; public education, meanwhile, is starved of funds and struggling. And here, we are now told, is how that inequality should be addressed: schools for the privileged should share their swimming pools, and generally make, in the aptly Victorian phrase used by the Charity Commission, "provision for the poor".

One would think that there would be a general sense of outrage, or at least of embarrassment, about this institutionalised inequality and waste of talent. In fact, it is those who oppose Britain's system of educational apartheid who are out in the political cold.

The Labour Party, extraordinarily, views private education as a tricky area, best avoided. "My motivation is with the 93 per cent who go to state schools" were the weaselly words used by Douglas Alexander on Andrew Neil's The Daily Politics this week. Yet the effect of in-built educational inequality can be seen in every item of home news. It is behind the lack of political will to make radical change, behind the disenchantment of teachers who work in the state sector, behind the lack of aspiration of many children, behind the defeatism of those entering the jobs market, the cynicism of voters, the underperformance of the economy, our lack of national self-confidence.

Michael Gove is a conviction politician who must know in his heart that, if the scandal of "independent" education is not addressed, his other plans are little more than fiddling around on the margins. It is time for him to be brave. Removing the absurdity of private schools having charitable status, the privileged being given more privilege, would be a useful start.