Education Sep 27 2010

Private school bursaries are not a public benefit

So private schools are planning to lure state-educated pupils into their sixth forms with the promise of partial bursaries to study certain subjects. Ever since the 2006 Charities Act, the private sector has been under pressure to prove it provides ‘public benefit’ and this must be the latest wheeze.

The 2006 Act led to the Charity Commission, which polices these matters, laying down several principles. Public benefits must be easily identifiable, widely available and not exclude people in poverty.

Most sane people might think that makes an irrefutable case for stripping private schools of their charitable status immediately. They do little to benefit society more generally, they increase social segregation,  are mostly full of pupils from higher income families and take a fairly isolationist position when it comes to sharing facilities, teachers or resources.

However removing charity status altogether involves a complex legal process, so the Charity Commission has adopted a more nuanced approach, putting private schools under a new duty to illustrate how they will meet and quantify public benefits in their annual reports and accounts.

The only trouble is bursaries don’t provide public benefit and should never have been allowed as a means of fulfilling it. Although nominally means tested (some schools make them available to parents on £40,000 a year and below which is hardly the poverty line) they usually only provide partial funding, they ignore the sort of extra charges that many poor families can’t afford and they are invariably academically selective, siphoning off the brightest pupils and their supportive parents from state schools which need a balanced intake to perform well.

Even the Conservatives now argue that academic selection doesn’t improve the chances of ‘bright poor kids,’ a case that was made eloquently by David Willetts in 2007.  Poor children fall behind before they even start school, gaps continue to widen long before secondary transfer, let alone sixth form choices, a trend that is further distorted by the ability of middle class parents to pay for private tuition.

The Tories parked the expansion of grammar schools as result of this. So it is absurd that  academically selective bursaries and scholarships – ripe for colonisation by the children of credit  crunched, middle class parents (as the assisted places were) and unlikely to benefit  ‘people in poverty ‘  should be seen as anything  but a  public ‘disbenefit.’

The Charity Commission could adopt a different approach by ruling out academic bursaries and insisting that free places could be given to pupils who wouldn’t pass the selective entry tests and whose chaotic home lives may mean they don’t make GCSEs let alone the sixth form. Private schools like to boast about their lavish resources and small classes. Maybe the children most at risk of exclusion should enjoy those benefits.

Most state schools can teach their sixth formers perfectly well but some do have teacher shortages in particular areas, so rather than poach bright pupils to enjoy specialist teaching in their schools, why don’t the private school heads send specialist teachers into local state schools where necessary to help pupils get the good grades they need to get to the top universities.

They won’t do this because in reality they are not charities but businesses operating in a highly competitive market place.   It is in their interests to hoover up places at the best universities for their own pupils. Removing the brightest from the local state school helps this endeavour with the double whammy of ensuring the local comprehensive then compares even more unfavourably in the league tables.

At the moment the public benefit test is a one way street. Private schools get the benefits and the tax breaks. It is time for a new approach – maybe from with a new Labour Leader showing the way?

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