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Public Schools: Charitable Status

Volume 773: debated on Tuesday 28 June 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will hold a consultation on the effects of the charitable status of public schools on equality of opportunity in Britain.

Equality of opportunity is very much a concern of the independent sector. The Independent Schools Council census this year showed that £728 million of assistance was given by schools for fee costs. Of that, around £370 million was means tested to help lower-income families access independent school provision. Independent schools are playing their part, but we want all schools to be excellent, which is why the Government are continuing with our education reforms so that social mobility is improved across the board.

First, on a narrow legal point, although the courts have deemed that there must be more than minimal benefit to the poor for a school to get charitable status, this is not left to the public interest to decide but left to the trustees—who are probably public schoolboys—to decide. One-nation Britain is not looking its best at present, and charity begins at home. I will quote some statistics on the composition of our own House of Lords. I think that the House would like to hear the data. Some 62% of Members of this House—79% of Conservative Members, 76% of Cross-Benchers and 34% of Labour Members—went to a public school.

I do not expect the House to want to listen. Ought we not to have an inquiry into all the evidence?

As I said, 93% of pupils are in the state sector. This Government have been pursuing radical education reform to ensure that all parents have access to a good school. I am sure that the noble Lord will be delighted to hear that since 2010 1.4 million more children are now in a good or outstanding school. I am sure that he will also be delighted to know that more disadvantaged young people are going to university than ever before. We want to make sure that all young people have the best chance in life and that is why our reforms to the state education sector are so important.

Is it not the case that independent schools disburse far more in means-tested bursaries than they receive as a result of charitable status? Is not the right way forward to concentrate on expanding partnerships between independent and maintained schools? More than 1,250 are now listed on the new Schools Together website, which I commend to the noble Lord, Lord Lea of Crondall.

My noble friend is absolutely right: 87% of ISC member schools are in some form of partnership with the state sector, and that often takes more than one form. For instance, 991 partnerships focused on sport, 848 on academic subjects, 616 on music, 571 on drama and 892 on other aspects, such as the governance of state schools. We should encourage our schools to work together to deliver the best for all young people.

My Lords, some of us have been actively encouraging partnerships between independent schools and the state sector. Does the Minister agree that best practice is excellent but that, sadly, there is a long tail of independent schools where the practice is not so good. Those schools need active encouragement to provide public benefit that justifies charitable status in terms of serving the broader local and national community.

The noble Lord is right: we want to encourage partnerships. That is why the ISC’s 2016 census has included an expanded set of questions about partnership. These data will be shared in aggregate and non-attributable form with the Charity Commission, which over the summer will carry out research into independent school engagement with partnerships, working across sectors, so that we can learn from best practice and see exactly what is going on.

My Lords, when we debated the Charity Bill, as a result of our amendments the Charity Commission agreed to look at this issue, because public schools have charitable status only by virtue of providing benefit to the public. Can the Minister give us an update on the Charity Commission’s review, which it undertook to conduct as a result of our amendments, and let us know what its current thinking is?

I will need to get back to the noble Baroness about that review if it is not the same as the research that I have just mentioned— a report that will be produced over the summer and then published. I know that the ISC and the Charity Commission have encouraged independent schools to disclose in their annual reports the nature and detail of their public benefit, working through partnerships and collaborative projects. But I will write to the noble Baroness if I have not answered her question.

I remind the noble Lord, Lord Lea of Crondall, that the public benefit test on which the charitable status of public schools depends was introduced by the Labour Government. If he requires any further information about it, he can just pop two rows down to speak to his noble friend Lord Bassam of Brighton, who was the Minister on the Bill.

As I said, at the moment there is very good partnership working between independent and state schools. For instance, staff at Oundle School teach swimming lessons to pupils from 13 local primary schools; Oakham School, along with two state schools, has opened a new sixth form in Rutland and has helped to develop its A-level courses and offer facilities; and the Stem Academy at Latymer Upper School runs sessions for year 7 and 8 pupils at local state secondary schools. A lot of good work is going on. I think that the best way to ensure that all young people have a great education is to all pull together and make sure that all parents and children have access to a good local school so that young people can achieve what they want.

My Lords, why not remove charitable status and introduce provisions in the Finance Acts for tax relief? We cannot call public schools charities: it makes a mockery of charity law.

The removal of charitable status would both reduce schools’ ability to help lower-income families and, indeed, remove their legal incentive to provide help—so we do not believe that that is the best course of action.