Education Review Group
Campaigning group fails its first test
At the recent judicial hearing on public benefit and schools, independent schools were widely seen to have scored a victory. But one lobby group at the hearings was left frustrated. The Education Review Group whose membership is from the broad left including such luminaries as Fiona Millar, Margaret Tulloch and Melissa Benn, failed to persuade the court that independent schools did not merit their charitable status. When not campaigning against Academies and Free schools, these campaigners manage to now find time to attack independent schools and their charity status.Their energy and reach , if not their effectiveness, has to be admired.
The group wants charity law and the guidance that goes with it tightened up . They believe that granting charity status to most independent schools is plain wrong because, in their view, much of what they do serves no charitable purpose. The court wasn’t terribly sympathetic. Nor did the court give the power to the charity commission to determine what public benefit is.Politicians had passed the baton on public benefit to the commission. But their guidance has been opaque and, in short ,they made a hash of it. Which is pretty much what the court judgement implied. The truth is that the commission couldn’t define what public benefit means in practice or give a clear steer to schools . Indeed , if anything, they signalled support for bursaries (although by definition they benefit the few rather than the many) while giving little weight to schools other charitable activities. Now charity trustees will make the decision on what constitutes public benefit but, and this is important, they must make more than de minimis or token provision for the poor. The ERG believes this is a missed opportunity to give real weight to the public benefit requirement for charities ie a chance to hammer what they see as elitist schools who don’t deserve charity status.
“This is a missed opportunity” intoned a spokesman for the group at the end of proceedings “ to address fundamental problems with so called charitable schools. When even the Prime Minister is calling for an end to educational apartheid between state and private schools it is regrettable that the court has not done more to ensure this happens. There are indications within the judgement that the lavish ‘gold plated’ provision within schools without any thought for poor pupils cannot continue but unless the charity commission can go in and check this will mean little in practice”
The ERG though seem to be out of touch with what has been happening over the last few years. Most independent schools have extensive outreach programmes, share facilities and teaching resources with state schools and increasingly are becoming involved with academies. There are currently 30 independent schools actively involved in the academies programme working with existing underperforming schools to deliver ’ sustainable transformation’. This includes seven schools acting as lead sponsor, nine as co-sponsor and a further 14 as educational partners.
Despite the best efforts of the ERG independent schools will retain their charitable status for the foreseeable future.