THE CHARITY COMMISSION
Is it now undermining the Governments education policy?
William Rees Mogg, the respected Times columnist, has joined the growing band of critics of the Charity Commissions approach to the public benefit test , particularly in relation to independent schools.
These critics believe that the Commissions approach , under its part time Chairwoman Dame Suzi Leather ,is logically challenged, partisan and possibly illegal.
The Charity Commission is establishing new rules after a change in the law in the Charities Act 2006 which means private schools have to show their fees are not a barrier to the services they provide, or risk losing charitable status. While most believe that schools with charity status should deliver public benefit, the devil is in the detail.
Rees Mogg writes in the Times (14 September)‘ the Charity Commission’s policy on independent schools will affect education expenditure, both in the independent and state systems. Unless the policy is reversed, it will lead to some independent schools closing, thus diminishing choice and increasing the costs of state education. This is a highly political policy, going flatly against the current pluralist development of Conservative thinking. It is a partisan political policy adopted by a body that is supposed to be a non-partisan regulator.’
It will certainly have implications for expenditure but perhaps worse, certainly as far as this Government is concerned, is that it is undermining its education agenda in two important respects. Promoting bursaries as a key means of demonstrating public benefit will skim off the best state school pupils, depriving their schools of role models, while increasing the performance gap between the state and independent sectors. The message this conveys is that state schools are not capable of looking after the interests of the most gifted pupils.
The Government of course wants to reduce this performance gap and has a programme of support for gifted and talented pupils in the maintained sector. Secondly, it will encourage more independent schools to focus on awarding bursaries rather than getting involved in mutually supportive partnerships with state schools which, self-evidently, have greater potential to deliver benefits to a greater number of pupils.(you would have thought the aim of the public benefit criterion was to deliver benefits to the greater number rather than the selected few- hence the logically challenged charge). Encouraging partnerships and federations and getting more independent schools supporting the expanding Academies scheme is also a policy aim.
Apart from the policy implications some lawyers doubt that what the Commission is up to, is in fact lawful. While Commissioners believe their approach is firmly underpinned by law, some other lawyers believe that a school is sufficiently compliant with Charity law if it is established for ‘the advancement of education’ without also having to provide for the ‘relief of poverty’.
It is something of an open secret that at the right moment the Charity Commission will be challenged in the courts and there is the potential for a long drawn out case that will damage the Charity Commission, whatever the result.
Certainly there are signs that the commission is on the defensive.
The tone of the Commissions communications has changed from being somewhat adversarial to ‘we are here to help you’, playing down the threat of any school closures. The moment the Commission, of course, forces the closure of a school, the Rubicon will have been crossed and it will be in unknown political territory, vulnerable and far from where it can feel secure. But even before it gets to this stage, and if the Tories win the next election, it may find it has other battles on other fronts to fight. That is what happens when quangos are perceived to have been politicised.