LibLink: Stephen Tall names Matthew Parris ‘Liberal of the Week’ for calling for end to private schools’ charitable status

Over at CentreForum’s blog, LibDemVoice Co-Editor Stephen Tall has named columnist Matthew Parris the inaugural winner of the think-tank’s ‘Liberal of the Week’ for ‘his attack on the charitable status of private schools that are bastions of privilege.’ Here’s an excerpt from Stephen’s reasons:

The fact that private schools are directly equated with charities such as Cancer Research UK and Oxfam – and can therefore benefit from rates relief and exemption from tax on investment income – is breathtaking. It means that the low-paid in society – including those earning less than the minimum wage – are helping to subsidise through their taxes the school fees of the better-off in society to the tune of an estimated £100 million each and every year.

If private schools are to be classed as charities a much simpler, more straightforward test of ‘public benefit’ should apply: are they willing to educate any child subject only to a fair admissions policy which treats all children equally regardless of their household income? …

Too many politicians are too scared of the reaction from the right-wing press – and from middle-class parents – to feel able to call for an end to this state sponsorship of continuing educational inequality. So kudos to Matthew Parris for using his platform at the Thunderer to advance this particular liberal cause.

You can read Stephen’s post in full at CentreForum’s blog here. Stephen will be running the ‘Liberal of the Week’ (and ‘Liberal Villain of the Month’) awards, and nominations are actively invited: suggestions to Stephen are welcome by email or Twitter.

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  • …but it’s not quite so “breathtaking” when you consider that pupils from not so well-off backgrounds, such as me, forty years ago, receive scholarships and bursaries to receive an education their parents could not otherwise afford.

    But I agree with the point in your longer article that this provision has been whittled away. It wasn’t like that in my day….

    Some such schools are better than others, of course. Take Christ’s Hospital for example. I defy any liberal to be ‘breathtaken’ by their admissions policy, except in a good way. They give up to 100% bursaries dependent on parent’s income. I’ve known several pupils from very, very humble backgrounds who have gone there under bursaries (e.g the child of a single mother who was out of work, and the child of a postman).

  • Richard Church 16th Jun '12 - 10:32am

    Paul, you might be able to get into Christ’s hospital if you are very bright and your parents have no money, but if your mum and dad are loaded, then of course it doesn’t matter how clever or thick you are. So at their best private schools are selective grammar schools that select most people by ability, and a few by their income. That hardly makes them a model for social inclusion.

    Public schools demonstrate why the governement was right to consider a cap on tax free donations to charities.

  • Not all kids in private schools are from wealthy backgrounds

    My son (now at uni) went to an independent school thanks to a partial bursary. (The school offers bursaries at various levels. It also has a great record for pupils with dyslexia.)
    If the charitable status had been scrapped, the fees would have gone up and I might not have been able to afford the increased share (which wasn’t easy to find as it was).
    The wealthier parents wouldn’t have noticed the rise much.

    The local comp he’d have gone to otherwise has a culture of failure where being bright and wanting to learn is a good way to be bullied. Pretty much like the one I went to: and I hated it and dreaded going in some days.

    Of course, I could’ve used the moneyI scrimped and saved for school fees to move to a catchment area of a better state school. As millions do and which no one can legislate against to increase fairness of opportunity.

    Instead of worrying about private schools, the focus should be on the REAL problem. Which is that there are many schools in the UK that parents with aspirations for their children are desperate to avoid sending them to.

  • Martin Pierce 16th Jun '12 - 11:04am

    Personally I think private schools are a blot on our society – but then like Cassie I also think all too many state schools aren’t as good as they need to be (like the one I went to) and have an intake I’m concerned to drop my two daughters into (also like the one I went to). However, in the meantime pending the revolution, an incremental measure that could be adopted would be to take away charitable status but make bursaries tax deductible. I agree with Matthew Parris that rich parents shouldn’t benefit from the reduced fees that inevitably ultimately must result from charitable tax status, while making bursaries a more attractive tax proposition relative to fees would provide a financial incentive to taking more children from a poorer background (albeit generally only the brighter ones – there are few that will take children on a bursary who aren’t high performers)

  • Richard, Of course, I would heartily agree with your thrust, but the point was about charitable status. Yes, it’s been diluted too much. Agreed. So we need to crank up the status critia so that there are many more bursaries and scholarships for the less well off. But the tone seems to be to abolish public schools altogether sometimes, which would be illiberal in the extreme.

    I happen to believe that a large number of pupils whose parents are “loaded” and go to some public schools are actually settimg out on life in the most sheltered environment in which they miss a vast swathe of the colour of society and are often ill prepared for the outside world. Good luck to them, say I.

    I agree with the point above that the onus of our focus should be on raising standards in state schools for all.

  • Andreas Christodoulou 16th Jun '12 - 12:12pm

    As liberals we should have no problem with free enterprise and the principle of charging for services, in this case education. Ideally we should also be in favour of a UK education system so good that nobody, regardless of the contents of their wallet, feels the need to privately educate their children, but this is practically unattainable, clearly.

    Charities in the UK should be subject to public benefit rules, but the private schools issue isn’t a reason to have a cap on charitable expense relief (certainly no cap on UK charities), it’s a reason to have a proper public benefit assessment of our charities.

  • I largely agree with cassie on this one.

    Matthew Parris makes some good points. You can certainly argue (as do some of the more enlightened public school headmasters like Anthony Seldon of Wellington College) that many independent schools could and should do more to justify their charitable status, both in terms of sharing facilities with neighbouring state schools and increasing their bursary schemes.

    But I don’t accept Stephen’s argument that the existence of charity status means that the low-paid in society – including those earning less than the minimum wage – are helping to subsidise through their taxes the school fees of the better-off in society to the tune of an estimated £100 million each and every year.”

    Despite the means-tested fee remission schemes that top private schools like St Paul’s and others have, let’s grant that the majority of those attending these schools come from affluent families (albeit in many cases those parents have made considerable financial sacrifices in what they regard as their children’s interests). The school fees are lower than they would be without charitable status, but they are paid out of the parents’ taxed income.

    Moreover, the fact that 600,000+ children attend private schools represents a direct public expenditure saving for the Exchequer, reducing the number of state school places that need to be funded and thus total education spending.

    State school per pupil funding is something of the order of £6,000 per year, so ceteris parabus an increase in the school population of 600,000 would increase the total Exchequer cost by £3.6 billion.

    This, indeed, is an argument used against proposals for universal school vouchers in countries that have significant private schooling: that they would necessitate an increase in total schools spending by allocating the per pupil ‘share’ not currently taken up by those educating their children privately.

    So this situation where higher private expenditure leads to a net saving to the public purse means that the “low-paid taxpayers subsidising the better off” argument – which is largely valid for Child Benefit and Housing Benefit – does not work in this context.

  • John Edward 16th Jun '12 - 3:59pm

    How very liberal…
    The ongoing correspondence on independent education and charitable status, triggered by Alan Milburn’s recent report and fuelled by Matthew Parris makes the common mistake of assuming all independent schools in the United Kingdom operate under the same conditions. You have fallen into the same trap – which does little for federal credentials.
    The Charities and Trustee Investment (Scotland) Act 2005 makes explicit reference to public benefit. Independent schools in Scotland – registered charities for the advancement of education – are tested as to whether the fees they charge to their students might unduly restrict access to the benefits they as charities provide. Over recent years over a dozen independent schools, of all varieties, have been tested and a range of public benefits, including means-tested bursaries ,assessed. That wide range of measures merits close reading.
    All of the schools tested have passed the charity test.

  • Give them tax relief on their bursaries / areas where they are providing a true public benefit. Charitable status should not be conferred on them as they clearly only provide a small amount of ‘charity’.

  • If the 600,000 pupils were in the state sector instead, the Establishment would have improved the standards in education by now. Playing fields probably wouldn’t have been sold off for a start.

  • Richard Dean 17th Jun '12 - 2:59pm

    I wonder if Matt Parris might have missed a few things here?

    According to the Charities Act 2006, a charity must provide a public benefit. Perhaps the cynical say that private school provide shcolarships in order to qualify in this respect. But what about political charites? Are the low-paid in society unwillingly and unwittingly subsidizing Centreforum, which describes itself as “the” liberal thinktank, charity number 1102186? How about Atlantic Bridge, as it was up to 2011?

    According to the Charities Act 2006, a charity must be established for charitable purposes, which may be

    the prevention or relief of poverty
    the advancement of education
    the advancement of religion
    the advancement of health or the saving of lives
    the advancement of citizenship or community development
    the advancement of the arts, culture, heritage or science
    the advancement of amateur sport
    the advancement of human rights, conflict resolution or reconciliation or the promotion of religious or racial harmony or equality and diversity
    the advancement of environmental protection or improvement
    the relief of those in need, by reason of youth, age, ill-health, disability, financial hardship or other disadvantage
    the advancement of animal welfare
    the promotion of the efficiency of the armed forces of the Crown or of the police, fire and rescue services or ambulance services
    other purposes currently recognised as charitable and any new charitable purposes which are similar to another charitable purpose.

    Which of these should be removed on the grounds that the low-paid are subsidising the charity?

  • Elizabeth Patterson 17th Jun '12 - 7:48pm

    A well deserved compliment for Matthew Parris; good that some one from the Blue side has the courage to speak up on this . I used to be a regular admiring reader until he disappeared behind a paywall!

    I once set up a charitable trust for a local not-for- profit project; it is very easy, using standard forms to guide you through the process.
    But charitable status should not be mixed up with donor tax avoidance where the charity is actually a business, like a private school, even though it is not-for-profit .
    The criterion should be, whether a charity is a business, or a philanthropic society; whether it serves its own interests or the interests of society in general.
    Perhaps, Stephen, you could get someone from Federal Policy to write an article on our position?

  • A lot of agonised comment on this. I tend to think that the answer on charitable status is quite simple (and Matthew Parris has it).

    Private schools should have a choice – either they agree to let pupils in on a needs blind basis (and benefit from charitable status). Or they don’t and accept that they are operating a business which doesn’t need any subsidy from the state.

    Of course, this does mean that we will likely have a fair number of selective private schools which causes its own issues but is way better than the current situation where private schools can take the vast majority from affluent families and top up with a few bright kids from poor backgrounds which help improve their stats.

    Could we make it party policy? And more importantly, try to persuade both liberal Tories (who will like the meritocratic aspect) and Labour politicians (who will like the social mobility and the opportunity to “bash” private schools).

    Rather than cutting down on charity tax relief, I think we should be much tighter on public benefit. As well as schools, there are a number of other charities which are dubious and it needs updated legislation to give the Charities Commission more power.

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