Politics

Limit private school fees and require more outreach, says think tank

EDSK warns against Labour's plan to lift charitable status, but says private school reform needed to 'improve their image'

EDSK warns against Labour's plan to lift charitable status, but says private school reform needed to 'improve their image'

Labour should abandon plans to remove charitable status from private schools and instead limit the fees they can charge and require more work to support poorer pupils and state schools, a think tank has urged.

The report from EDSK warned of “significant legal and financial risks” associated with the party’s plans to lift tax exemptions for private schools, and said the reforms “should not be pursued by either the current or a future government”.

But it also warned some bursaries and scholarships were aimed at families earning up to £150,000 a year, and partnerships with state schools are not always beneficial.

It comes after an earlier report from the think tank warned Labour’s policy will likely raise £600 million less than the party hopes it will.

Fee assistance offered to the well-off

EDSK’s report found bursaries and scholarships distributed each year by private schools “are sometimes being used to support well-off families”.

It cited Sevenoaks School, whose website states that “combined income up to £150k may still be considered in certain circumstances” for fee assistance.

St Paul’s School states that “families with a gross household income of up £126,000 pa or less and net assets up to £1.4m may be eligible for a bursary”.

Partnerships falling short

The report also warned that voluntary “partnerships” between private and state schools present a “mixed picture”.

“At their best”, the partnerships add value to state schools. But some “present a less encouraging picture”. Data from the Independent Schools Council shows the most common type of partnership is “playing sporting fixtures with or against state schools”.

The report said it was “hard to describe as an entirely selfless and charitable activity”. The second most common partnership activity was having members of staff serve as governors.

‘Misconceptions’

The report also said the “common stereotype of an independent school as a large single-sex senior boarding school is entirely unrepresentative”, with independent schools more likely to be co-educational primaries with fewer than 300 pupils.

And only half of independent schools even hold charitable status, the report said, which raised “questions about the general level of understanding of the independent school sector within political circles”.

Legal barriers

Private schools with charitable status are regulated by the Charity Commission, meaning ministers cannot remove charitable status under current legislation, the report said. Labour has not made clear how it will enact its policy.

The think tank also pointed out the classification of “advancement of education” as a charitable activity “dates back several hundred years and remains rooted in legislation”.

“It is not obvious how a government could set about arguing that the provision of education to children and young people in an independent school is not ‘charitable’ and does not provide any ‘public benefit’.”

What should change?

EDSK warned against Labour’s plan, but said to address critics’ concerns about charitable private schools and “improve their image”, government must “raise the bar for all these schools in terms of how much support they offer disadvantaged students and local state schools”.

The report proposes…

  • Amending charity to include a legal definition of ‘public benefit’
  • A legal condition that states fees charged by private schools cannot be ‘unduly restrictive’
  • Requiring charitable private schools to report annually on financial support for pupils
  • Expect charitable private schools to publish details of the ‘cost, frequency and scale of their partnership activities’

Independent Schools Council chief executive Julie Robinson said they “would encourage politicians from all parties to engage and work with us to build on the good public benefit work that already exists within the sector to improve education for more young people”.

Labour was approached for comment.

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