The great public schools of England were established centuries ago to educate the sons of the poor, who would otherwise have received no formal learning. Had they continued this social mission, their charitable status would have remained uncontroversial.
However, our independent schools are now dominated by the wealthy – and increasingly the international super rich – a trend which has accelerated over the past decade as fees have risen rapidly and even affluent middle class British families have been priced out of the market.
Charitable status confers huge financial advantages on independent schools, with tax breaks worth around £250m per year. But should they really receive 80% relief on their business rates when my local NHS hospital does not? Should public money be spent on golf courses and concert venues which are rarely – if ever – available for wider community use? And do the oligarchs of China, Russia and the Middle East deserve an annual gift of £550 from the British taxpayer?
Independent schools often seek to justify their charitable status through bursary schemes, but less than 8% of the sector’s pupils benefit in this way. Indeed one very prominent independent school in London defines annual family income of less than £120,000 as ‘disadvantaged’ for the purposes of its fee subsidy, which makes it hard to argue that they are meeting the pressing educational needs of poorer families in our capital city.
The government should require independent schools to compete on the same basis as five star hotels, fast cars and fine wines. And the £250m dividend for the taxpayer should be invested in the academies programme which is helping to raise educational standards for millions.
First published in Education Investor, October 2017