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.



  1. To shamelessly replay something I posted on the Free Schools Resource group in LinkedIn, “Reading Fiona Millar on education is a bit like reading Simon Cowell on Proust.”

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