Share and share alike

John Clarke looks at how the debate on sharing facilities with the community and public benefit might affect independent schools

The Charity Commission recently published a copy of a letter sent to the Independent Schools Council (ISC), setting out how the two organisations intended to improve the sharing of facilities between the state and independent sector.

Although seemingly out of the blue, this all stems from attempts in the House of Lords to make amendments to the Charities (Protection and Social Investment) Bill which would require independent schools to engage actively with the local community and state schools, with a view to sharing resources and facilities. The placement of the clause in the public benefit section of the Charities Act 2011 made it clear that independent schools were being told how they must demonstrate public benefit going forwards, and the Charity Commission would be under a legal duty to produce guidance on the minimum that schools would have to do in order to meet this requirement.

When debating the provisions it became clear that the House of Lords were divided between those who felt that the sector did not do enough to reach out to the local community and required a very specific “nudge” in the right direction, and those who felt that legislation was not the correct way to address this issue – if there even was an issue in the first place.

Since the proposed amendments were defeated, the law looks set to remain as it is, and that is in no small part due to the ISC and Charity Commission persuading the House of Lords that there was a better solution to the perceived issue, and this is summed up in the Charity Commission’s recent letter to the ISC, which sets out three courses of action to be undertaken to promote and encourage the sharing of facilities and expertise.

The first of these is an initiative run by the ISC – the Schools Together website – which will pair up state schools who need particular facilities or assistance and the independent schools who have those facilities and/or expertise available.

The Charity Commission will also amend its guidance on public benefit so that examples of sharing facilities are given and there is a commitment on both parties to publicise the guidance.

The third part of the solution is a widespread review, commissioned by the Charity Commission, but carried out by an independent company, into the effectiveness of the above strategy by assessing the amount of partnership working and whether it has increased as a result of this initiative.

On the one hand, this is great news, because the research will no doubt demonstrate that the sector is carrying out a wide range of partnerships in different areas of school life and include many success stories. On the other hand, the remit of the research is very narrow and unlikely to paint a true picture of the level of overall public benefit that is provided by independent schools. How each school meets the public benefit requirement depends on so many different factors. Sharing facilities is one way of meeting that requirement, but it is one of many ways, and this will not be apparent if the focus of the research is so narrow.

The law on public benefit and independent schools has not changed, but the sector has had a clear steer from the House of Lords and the Charity Commission that the sharing of facilities is considered an excellent means of meeting the public benefit requirement, so schools should be looking at ensuring that they report clearly and accurately in this area – and if opportunities arise, take them. 

John Clarke is a partner in Stone King’s education law department and heads the firm’s independent schools team W: www.stoneking.co.uk    

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