Leading article: Private schools, public responsibilities

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The Independent Online

The Charity Commission's latest ruling will send an uncomfortable jolt through the independent schools sector. Two private primaries, St Anslem's in Bakewell and Highfield Priory in Preston, have been told that they are not doing enough to justify their charitable status and need to give more access to disadvantaged youngsters. If the criteria that the Commission has used in this pilot are applied nationwide, a great many other schools across the country would be likely to receive a similar warning.

The ruling will be contentious, but the Commission is justified in taking a more robust attitude. A requirement for schools to work with their local community, regardless of income, is a reasonable quid pro quo for the tax breaks that come with charitable status. And there is no shortage of ways for such schools to justify their special status, from sponsoring city academies, to allowing other state schools to share playing fields and other facilities. Far-sighted private schools are already heading in this direction. Others clearly need a nudge to help them down the same path.

Private schools sometimes argue that they already justify their estimated £100m annual tax exemptions because they take pressure off the education budget. But this is clutching at straws. The charitable status of these institutions was originally conferred at a time when there was no public education and private schools catered almost exclusively for the children of the poor. The education sector has changed radically since that era. Nowadays private schools educate the children of the prosperous and charge considerable fees for their services. Many resemble profitable businesses rather than altruistic educational charities.

Simply because some independent schools are wealthy does not mean, of course, that the Government has a right to boss them about. And many provide a standard of excellence in education that the state sector ought to be striving to match. But the prosperity of many of these schools does mean, as the Commission has recognised, they have a responsibility to demonstrate why they deserve to benefit from a tax status designed to help institutions devoted exclusively to the widest possible public good.

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