Does Sponsoring Academies Justify Charitable Status?

Contributed by David Pavett, FE and sixth form teacher, former NATFHE officer and recent author of a study of Labour’s policy processes 

An article by Anthony Seldon (Master of the private school Wellington College) in the FT on 27th July argued that private schools must do more to justify their charitable status. As if to frighten his colleagues he wrote “The next Labour government, which becomes ever closer with each passing week, will legislate to remove charitable status from private schools that do not justify this concession.”

A Guardian report on 19 July 2012 reported that Stephen Twigg “said private schools were ‘a major barrier to achieving a more just society and greater social mobility’. Most private schools enjoy charitable status and thus benefit from various tax concessions worth at least £100m a year”. He also said that “…some private schools, such as Manchester Grammar, took their charitable obligations seriously and worked hard to serve the community at large, by sponsoring academies or collaborating with local state schools.”

The question is whether we regard private schools as a problem. If we do then a further question is whether progress is made regarding that problem by getting private schools to sponsor Academies. How one answers these questions depends on how one views the break up of local authority participation in education, the development of Academies, Free Schools and the encouragement of more faith schools.

For the moment at least Labour seems to go along with conversion of local schools into Academies and to accept, initially reluctantly, the creation of Free Schools. The logic of this position is to abandon the idea of comprehensive community schools serving their local community. It also means abandoning the idea of local democratic participation in education through local authorities. Indeed Stephen Twigg has mooted the idea of a new “middle tier” of educational management between government and schools which would presumably take on all or many of the functions formerly carried out by local authorities.

Will the fragmentation of the school system into Academies, Free Schools, City Technology Colleges, and Faith Schools, along with league tables and so-called parental choice produce increased social differentiation in the state-supported sector?

If the answer to this is “yes” then it is difficult to see how getting private schools to participate in this fragmentation is a positive thing. It is also difficult to see on what grounds this would justify their charitable status.

Beyond that, Anthony Seldon has read the runes. He admits the socially divisive nature of private schooling. He argues that this ‘defect’ can be remedied by good works. In particular, he argues that private schools should sponsor Academies i.e. the schools in the state sector that are most likely to amplify social differentiation. Private Schools, he argues, can sponsor Academies and show them how to do things for the sake of the less advantaged.

The issue for Labour is what direction it wants our education system to take. Is the future to be one of increasing fragmentation along the lines of American Charter schools? The consequences of this are already clear. Schools lose their status as local institutions. The status of teachers is reduced to educational operatives whose overriding duty is to teach to narrow tests. Schools are assumed to be best run on business lines and there is a complete loss of a coherent vision for education.

This is not a good model to follow. But what is Labour’s alternative vision? This is not a rhetorical question but a genuine plea for anyone who thinks that Labour has such a vision to explain what it is.

I guess that many and perhaps most Labour Party members think that this must change. It is a safe bet that most Labour Party members believe in the idea of high quality local schools and are not happy about present trends. They probably also want to see local authorities involved in local education. The Finns have built a world beating education system on that basis. Can we not do the same?