‘Get ahead of the argument’: independent schools and their public contribution

Many independent schools have charitable status – but how do they demonstrate their public benefit?

Charities are not interested in party politics – but as many heads of independent schools with charitable status know, they are rarely far from their political detractors’ sights.

“Charities can challenge things, charities can shake things up, they can even change the world, but they can’t, and they shouldn’t go out of their way to divide people.” Those are the words of the chair of the Charity Commission in England and Wales, Tina Stowell. Earlier this year, Lady Stowell told the Social Market Foundation that charities should be mindful of engaging with contentious social and cultural issues.

Lady Stowell, who was once a Tory peer, echoed the words of some backbench Conservative MPs, who claim there are some in the charitable sector overstepping the line.

Charities cannot advocate on behalf of political causes unless they directly relate to their charitable endeavours – but the remarks from Lady Stowell reflect the growing political dispute about the role of charities in British life. Independent school critics have long opposed the charitable status of many institutions, and the more politicians argue about charities, the more charities become a political football.

North of the Scottish border, independent schools became the focus of a review of business rates reform. Just a few years previously, in response to a 2014 petition to the Holyrood parliament, the Scottish National Party-led government insisted it had no intention to review the 2005 act and levy rates.

John Edward, director of the Scottish Council of Independent Schools (SCIS), remains hopeful the government will again postpone the tax rise until after the Covid-19 pandemic.

In Wales, the Labour-led government began a consultation on removing charitable rates relief for private schools in January last year. The review is ongoing: the scale of the change to independent schools in Wales remains uncertain.

The publication of the Labour 2019 manifesto incited a backlash from independent schools and their supporters. The party had decided it was time to close what Angela Rayner described as “tax loopholes” for independent schools. Various newspapers and public figures claimed polling evidence suggested the majority of Brits supported the principle of independent schools. But as successive YouGov polls have shown, Brits are a lot less predisposed towards the idea of independent schools as ‘charities’.

The four most recent biannual YouGov polls suggest 43% believe independent schools should lose their charitable status, and 26% believe independent schools should do more to help state schools or resign their charitable status. A remaining 19% don’t know, and just 11% favour the status quo.

The result of the 2019 general election postponed something in England that is, perhaps, ineluctable. Devolution has permitted Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the SNP to trial policies in Wales and Scotland that could eventually be replicated in England if viewed as a success.

Defining charity

Until the Charities Act of 2006, there was no statutory definition of a charity. Instead, the term was defined and developed in common law over several centuries. Acts of parliament that applied to charities before 2006 use a ‘preamble’ from a 17th-century statute (The Charitable Uses Act of 1601) to loosely define a charity as something that exists exclusively for charitable purposes and for public benefit.

The courts continue to employ common law to interpret ‘public benefit’, as no statutory interpretation exists, although the advancement of education is one such definition. Many independent schools in the UK began with philanthropic intentions, and the present guardians of those institutions should help spread that legacy.

Edward says many schools place significance on their founding mission. “Many schools attach much of the philosophy and ethos of the school to the founder through Founders Day events, for example. Take George Heriot’s School in Edinburgh; it is in the same place, in the same buildings since 1628. Founders Day is a big thing for them and they make a point of saying there’s no point in honouring the founder if you don’t honour the principles under which the founders set up the school.”

Scotland set different charity tests for independent schools from England and Wales in 2005. Edward says the sector in Scotland responded well to these policies and achieved a lot; it is, for this reason, why the decision on business rates is all the harder to stomach. “That policy has been successful, both on the financial side, but also making schools re-audit their position in the community,” he continues.

“The whole point of that policy was to make schools take their not-for-profit responsibilities more seriously. The act stipulated that if you had fees that were a barrier to people using your services, you had to offset that and you had to consider different ways of access, and that’s what our sector has done.

“In the last 10 years, we estimate that means-tested fee assistance more than tripled in Scottish schools.”

The act stipulated that if you had fees that were a barrier to people using your services, you had to offset that and you had to consider different ways of access, and that’s what our sector has done – John Edward, director of the Scottish Council of Independent Schools

Those schools in England and Wales with charitable status can reclaim Gift Aid on any qualifying donations that they receive and qualify for exemptions on charitable trading profits, rental income, investment income and business rates, as well as certain reliefs from VAT.

As of 2019, the government has not published charitable tax figures for independent schools – and in comparison to the increasing costs of the Teachers’ Pension Scheme, the loss of charity tax relief to many schools would be modest.

In Scotland, though, the Barclay Review estimated that the five-fold increase in business rates for the 102 Scottish independent schools would generate between £5–7m for the public purse. These new taxes will be significant in many smaller schools.

Successful partnerships

The Independent Schools Council’s (ISC) Schools Together campaign has helped to illustrate the contribution of English schools in human – and financial – terms.

In the latest report, ISC chair Barnaby Lenon sets out the gold-standard for partnerships. “The evidence suggests that the most successful partnerships have certain characteristics. They are voluntary partnerships which normally arise from existing relationships between schools. Schools know what they need and what is likely to work. There is mutual enthusiasm and reciprocity.”

Successful partnerships are often noticeable by “clear and specific aims”, he says. “For example, to improve English GCSE exam results as the 3/4 boundary; to boost music provision… to increase the proportion of pupils going to top universities.”

There are many notable examples to commend and champion. Teachers from King’s College School in Wimbledon last year supported four local schools to deliver a fortnight of GCSE top-up lessons for 60 state pupils in preparation for English, maths and science lessons.

Highgate School and the London Academy of Excellence Tottenham hosted a summer school in August 2020 for more than 80 year 10s to help them prepare for their final year of GCSE study. The sessions included workshops designed to enhance employability.

During a session at IE’s digital conference – IE Live – last year, a panel of senior leaders from state and independent schools were optimistic about the possibility of co-creating online learning resources. Deputy head of Eton College Tom Arbuthnott told the IE Live audience about the pedagogical benefits (and professional development opportunities) for staff who can work across institutions to create subject-specific learning materials.

Eton offered students from years 10 to 13 in the UK access to its online learning platform, EtonX. The school – which also sponsors local free school, Holyport College – has a Social Vision project that aims to share academic excellence. The school estimated last year that around 220,000 students had access to Eton-created resources.

Streatham and Clapham High School has shared classical civilisation lessons with four local state secondary schools since 2018. The partnership means students can take a GCSE in the subject – offering them something their schools would not otherwise provide. The lessons transferred to Zoom during the schools shut down.

For several years Caterham School has run multi-year programmes to support students from year 9 to year 13 prepare for higher education.

The residential sessions in the Easter and summer holidays – which this year ran as virtual events – equip students with study skills they may need during university.

Nicki Mattin, principal of Spires Academy in Kent, joined IE Live to discuss East Kent Schools Together, an independent-state school partnership that she helped found. The eight school partners and Canterbury Christ Church University (CCCU) span some of the county’s most affluent and deprived communities.

Through lockdown, the network has hosted extra-curricular events (including art workshops and sing-a-longs) for students. There are also regular teacher sessions for subject specialists to help devise shared approaches to teaching online. CCCU has also helped create “dynamic dialogue” activities with the schools to help students learn presentation and public-speaking skills.

I cannot understand why the independent sector nationally isn’t out in front of formal charity testing – John Edward, director of the Scottish Council of Independent Schools

The Hampshire School Chelsea fundraised for School-Home Support (SHS) to help the charity’s partner school, Westbridge Primary School in Battersea, buy essential items during lockdown, such as desks, duvets, washing machines, beds, IT equipment and school uniform.

And Benenden recently announced the first of a series of international schools in China that will help “support [Benenden’s] ambitious bursary programme”, according to school headmistress Samantha Price.

Few in the sector would condone ‘charity’ as an appropriate label for many of these endeavours. Many independent school teachers started their careers in the state sector – many may return in the future. Many sit on cross-sector boards that help links flourish between independent and state schools. Many pursue partnerships in their own time and commit many unpaid hours to their furtherment. The term ‘partnership’ accurately reflects the exchange between the two.

However, Edward has strong words for the UK independent sector: “Get ahead of the argument.” Annual charity reporting can be described as bureaucratic – but it helps to set standards and could help persuade the sector’s detractors of the case many strive to make: the independent sector comprises some incredible institutions, capable of making a fantastic public contribution.

He continues: “I cannot understand why the independent sector nationally isn’t out in front of formal charity testing. Get ahead of the argument. School partnerships are a great thing, don’t get me wrong on that. And what the ISC, school associations and the DFE are doing is great, but it’s voluntary. And they all involve some state money.”

In Edward’s view, annual compulsory reporting would create a platform to demonstrate and champion the public benefit of independent schools. Now may be time to get ahead of the argument.


This feature was originally published in the March issue of IE.

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