It is March 2020; the era of lockdown is about to begin and there is a Labour Leadership Q&A happening on television. I’m half watching, half not, until the question of private schools as charities is raised. A journalist asks Sir Keir Starmer, the now elected Labour leader, if he is in favour of removing private schools from their charitable status. “Absolutely,” he says, nodding, “we need to close the tax loopholes enjoyed by private schools and use the revenue to improve the lives of all children.”
Starmer’s answer is seemingly a controversial one. It quickly caused a social media furore, despite his words matching up to a Labour policy decided at the party’s annual conference last year. Scrolling on Twitter, I find a few tweets disagreeing with the Labour politician– “independent schools do a lot to benefit the local community,” one user writes.
But the majority is overwhelmingly in favour with Starmer. The most elite schools in the country do not act like charities, so should not be treated as such. One Twitter user links an article published in The Guardian by Frances Ryan, who writes that private schools began as “philanthropic institutions… but have long since turned into mechanisms for a form of social apartheid.” It is a bold declaration, but I, and apparently the majority of Twitter, can’t help but agree.
Before 2000, independent schools could automatically claim charitable status. The crux of the benefits was that they would be released from paying taxes to the government. After 2006, however, the law was amended. To merit a charitable status today, private schools must present evidence of their ‘community work.’ This can take the form of opening up their swimming pool to the public, or perhaps sharing their extra-curricular opportunities with state schools in the area.
In reality, what constitutes ‘community work’ has never properly been defined by the government. The Charity Commission brought the case to the high court in 2011, attempting to impose a series of requirements on independent schools to openly establish the type of schemes they may offer. It was decided ultimately that the commission were being – in the words of private schools involved in the case – ‘too prescriptive.’ Independent schools could go about being charities in whichever way they liked.
I am no stranger to the system of private school outreach. In Year 9, my school sent a handful of us to a highly performing private school to learn Latin from scratch, where, by the end of three years, we would have the opportunity to take the GCSE. The teaching there was exceptional, and although I have since forgotten most of the Latin, the lessons instilled an interest and knowledge of the classical world that has been invaluable.
Once a week, we sat in a waiting room before our lesson. After a parent asked the receptionist why a gaggle of girls were there, her reply came in clear earshot: “Oh, they’re here for our charity work.” I must have been fourteen when I heard that, but I’ve always remembered it – not because the receptionist had been explicitly rude, but because of the implication that this was an exchange; that we, for them, were charity.
This attitude, thankfully, did not apply to the teachers in any respect. For two years, we had a brilliantly eccentric teacher who let us do what we liked, sang opera songs and told stories of Roman Emperors with such fascination that we were all captivated. In the final year, we had a teacher who drilled us on Latin verbs and gave us intricately detailed revision notes that had been provided for the boys for years. In the final weeks running up to the exam, my friends and I went from steadily failing Latin to ironically achieving our best score out of all our GCSEs – a perfect UMS grade, the culmination of four gruelling papers. We still wondered: how much did we owe it to the kind of intensely focused education privately schooled kids were receiving every day? How much was it the product of our own hard work?
A caveat here: the comprehensives who were invited on the program were by no means the least privileged. My school was in an affluent area, was highly oversubscribed, and, it is fair to say, a hotbed for the middle-class of West London. David Cameron had attempted to send his daughter there in 2015 but was denied a place on account of being too far out of the catchment area.
Yes, there was no chance that we would be offered Latin at our own school – we lacked resources and most of our subjects were already chronically underfunded – but it did appear that we were the ‘least trouble’ out of state schools in London to invite. It was assumed that we would be the politest, the most hard-working; that we would turn up on time and complete the work without a fuss. If they were doing real ‘charity work,’ we would undoubtedly never have received an invite.
Year 12 rolled around and my friend and I were accepted onto the Universities Summer School at Eton College, available only to state schools. The course would equate to two weeks of rigorous teaching in small classes, interview and entrance-test preparation, all against the backdrop of the most famous private school in the country – the boys having gone home already for the holidays.
Our minds were stretched. We were taught to think in ways we had never even considered. In many ways, my experience of the summer school humanised Eton. My anxieties about the teachers sneering at my lack of abilities were ill-founded – many of them were already retired, returning on a voluntary basis to teach on the course with genuine care and kindness. I also got a good insight into the array of scholarships and bursaries they offered to boys from working-class backgrounds.
I felt a growing sense of resentment that the standard of teaching at Eton was not mirrored in my own; that only a select few of us – the academically achieving state schoolers who could afford the fee for the course – were allowed a taste of what this teaching was like. Back at school, I caught my friend’s eye in lessons and knew exactly what she was thinking. We were lucky to have teachers who were immensely inspiring and intelligent; we unashamedly loved them and talked to them like friends. But none of the resources our school offered could match what we had experienced at Eton.
This is not to say that I was, or am, ungrateful for the outreach work both of these schools offered. Later that year, all of our English class on the course at Eton were lucky enough to receive offers from Oxford, Cambridge and other Russell Group universities – a clear testimony to the fact that something had happened during those two weeks to make it all pay off. But I couldn’t help thinking that this was the kind of teaching that only 7% of the country were receiving throughout their education. These outreach schemes are not inherently bad – I am someone who has benefited from them and am hugely appreciative of this fact. Yet ironically in offering such schemes, these schools were avoiding the very taxes that would feed back into funding my own school.
Scotland has led the way in abolishing the charitable status of private education. Their announcement last year has meant that independent schools will no longer get charitable relief for up to 80% of their bills, and Labour, if elected, have pledged to do the same. Even Theresa May decided to gear the Conservative 2017 manifesto towards a similar sentiment: private schools would be forced to sponsor a state school, or face losing their tax loophole. Her proposition was later dropped without comment, and as a result, between 2017-22 private schools will get tax rebates totalling £522m.
These are sums that cannot and should not be ignored. They are not the statistics of a modern society that claims to be progressive and fair; in fact, they negate the very idea of charity. Some may point out here that independent schools actually help comprehensives by alleviating some of the burden on the state, but to do this, they have to be granted a position of exclusivity. Even if some of their forms of outreach are genuinely charitable, like bursaries, the idea of these giving an economic and social leg-up to a few low-income pupils seems backwards and wrong – it only strengthens the class structures that are there in the first place.
It’s an endless circle of disaster. How can institutional change take place if the systems that enable change are ruled by those who have grown up in the independent sector? The charitable status of private schools is not the greatest flaw in our education system, but it is one that all leaders – not just Starmer – urgently need to talk about and address.