The Blind leading the blind

Commission’s opacity on public benefit bemuses the schools sector


Spare a thought for the two independent schools singled out by the Charity Commission for not delivering enough Public Benefit to justify their Charity status in the first inspections last year.

The Commissions verdicts were supposed to help other schools judge whether they were doing enough to satisfy the public benefit criterion and if not to help inform their actions to remedy the situation.

Have they? You must be joking.

In the meantime,  these two rather  unfortunate schools have to try and second guess what the Commission actually wants and expects from them.

The governors and senior management teams of  Highfield Priory and St Anselms  will  now be investing time  and resources to unravel the Commissions assessments and work out what changes they should adopt  to appease the Commission.

They have to come up with solutions by the middle of this year. And one wonders what will happen if they don’t deliver a raft of bursaries.  Other Schools too will be preparing their annual reports and returns to the Commission, since those reports must ‘have regard’ to the Commission’s guidance on public benefit.

The Charity Commission now stands accused by the independent sector of conflating matters of law, policy and ideology.

The Commission has said free and subsidised places represented the most straightforward way to pass the “public benefit” test. Schools claim plausibly that  all “non-direct” benefits are being ignored  or not given sufficient weight, in favour of bursaries.

Dame Suzi Leather, the part time chair of the Commission, seeks to reassure charities that the commission wants to help them if they fail the public benefit test, not to close them down. This is as reassuring as a huntsman telling a fox that he is concerned for its welfare.

The Charity Commission’s opacity has destroyed confidence in its judgment and the vetting process. The fears of small independent schools, that community partnership arrangements will count for less than bursaries, appear to have been vindicated.

Quite why the Commission has come down so heavily in favour of bursaries is a mystery and raises questions about its judgment and  political nous .Make no mistake though,  the Commission is now seen by many in the independent sector as  ‘political’ ,pursuing a political agenda,  led by a political appointee.

If schools are Charities then of course they should show that they deliver benefits to the public. Nobody disputes that. But the nature, scope and means of delivery are where the dispute lies.

Bursaries are surely not the way forward because they benefit just a few individuals. Public benefit should be about maximising benefits to the many. Skimming the brightest pupils from state schools will almost certainly damage them by removing role models from their peer groups. At the same time, the pupils who remain are effectively being told that their school is not good enough to educate the best. As fees rise to pay for more bursaries, apart from the assisted few, the best private schools will become even more exclusive and the preserve of the very wealthy few. Better surely for private schools to be encouraged to work closely with state schools in mutually beneficial partnerships.

The ISC has for some time been looking at the possibility of challenging the Charity Commission in the Courts to clarify the law. There is a perception that the Charity Commission is making up the law as it goes along.

Speaking to The Daily Telegraph this week  David  Lyscom, the Chief Executive of the Independent Schools Council, said: “We believe the Charity Commission has acted illegally – essentially, they have made up their own rules. As we have said all along, we think they have defined public benefit in much too narrow a way.

“We are still looking at legal action and we have not ruled it out. We are seeing how they would operate and enforce their position in practice.  “We are still deeply dissatisfied with the way they have done this and we feel the emphasis on poverty and means-tested bursaries is politically driven. It is a political interpretation of public benefit as being to do with poverty.”

Should the Tories win the (May?) election they would hold “immediate talks” with the Charity Commission in order to persuade it to “soften its line on reviewing independent schools’ charitable status”. The Tories want the Commissioners to adopt a broader vision of what constitutes public benefit including, for example, supporting  schemes  like  the  one at St Paul’s School for Boys, in west London,  which gives maths “master classes” to gifted state school pupils

The awful shame about this shambles is  that it is so unnecessary. It has been poorly handled by the Commission, though they were sold a pup by politicians. It has tarnished too the Commissions brand. Bit of a shame really, given that, more generally,  it is not such a bad regulator of the third  sector.

But one thing is clear, something has to give and it is unlikely that the Commission will emerge unscathed from the subsequent fall out.They have entered a minefield without the necessary equipment to cope with the threat and  been left out on a limb by politicians. Sounds familiar?


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