George Monbiot published this article in the Guardian on 22nd January 2008 under the tag line ‘Britain’s strange private school system causes immeasurable harm’.
- Only class war on public schools can rid us of this unhinged ruling class.
Cowardice over the charitable status of private education leaves power in the hands of a tiny, damaged elite.
If only the government would justify the paranoia of the ruling classes. They believe, as they have always believed, that they are under unprecedented attack. All last week the rightwing papers rustled with the lamentations of the privileged, wailing about a new class war. If only.
The whinge-fest was prompted by the publication of the Charity Commission’s new guidance about public benefits1. If institutions want to retain their status as charities, they should demonstrate that they do good2. The benefits they create should outweigh the harm they might do, the poor should not be shut out, and “charities should not be seen as ‘exclusive clubs’ that only a few can join”. It hardly sounds radical: after all, what sort of charity is it that doesn’t meet these conditions? Well, it’s a distressed gentlefolks’ association called the private school, and it costs us £100m a year in tax exemptions3.
Though they cannot meet even the crudest definition of charities, the commission – doubtless terrified of the force they can muster – grants private schools a series of escape clauses. Their charitable status will be preserved if they provide some subsidised places to poorer pupils or share some of their facilities with other schools, even if they charge for them4. Thus, according to Melanie Phillips, Simon Heffer and a Telegraph leader, the commission has launched a “class war”5,6,7, motivated (according to Heffer) by “government-orchestrated spite” or (a headteacher writing in the Telegraph) “the rhetoric of envy”8. As seven of the Charity Commission’s nine board members were privately educated19,20. He proposes that places at the best universities should be awarded to the top pupils in each of the UK’s sixth forms, regardless of absolute results. Middle-class parents would have a powerful incentive to send their children to schools with poor results, then to try to ensure that those schools acquired good resources and effective teachers. They would have no interest in sending their children to private schools.
But who is prepared to fight the necessary class war? Not the government, or not yet at any rate. Not the Charity Commission. Unless the Labour party starts to show some mettle, we will be stuck with a system which cripples state education, preserves the class structure and permits a few thousand frightening, retentive people to rule over us. And this will continue to be deemed a public benefit.
1. The Charity Commission, 2008. Charities and Public Benefit: The Charity Commission’s general guidance on public benefit. http://www.charity-commission.gov.uk/Library/publicbenefit/pdfs/publicbenefittext.pdf
2. The Commission is interpreting the Charities Act 2006, which is explained here: http://www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/upload/assets/www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/third_sector/charities_act_interactive.pdf
3. Polly Curtis and David Brindle, 16th January 2008. Do more for poorer children or lose your charitable status, private schools are told. The Guardian.
4. The Charity Commission, 2008, ibid, page 25, para 3.
5. Melanie Phillips, 16th January 2008. A most uncharitable campaign. The Spectator. http://www.spectator.co.uk/melaniephillips/452356/a-most-uncharitable-campaign.thtml
6. Simon Heffer, 18th January 2008. Our chippy ministers revive the class war. The Daily Telegraph.
7. Leading article, 16th January 2008. Labour’s class warfare in independent schools. The Daily Telegraph.
8. Martin Stephen, 16th January 2008. The crime in teaching at independent schools? The Daily Telegraph.
9. Email from Sarah Miller, the Charity Commission, 18th January 2008.
10. Nick Davies, 8th March 2000. State of despair as public schools get the cream. The Guardian.
11. Two new studies, by Francis Green and Stephen Machin, are summarised here: LSE, 2008. New research on independent schools – their effects on teacher supply and the returns to private education.
12. Originally published in the Guardian, his findings are collected in Nick Davies, 2000. The School Report, Vintage.
13. Nick Davies, 15th September 1999. Bias that killed the dream of equality. The Guardian.
14. Nick Duffell, 2000. The Making of Them: The British attitude to children and the boarding school system. Lone Arrow Press.
16. Caroline Elkins, 2005. Britain’s Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya. Jonathan Cape, London.
17. Nick Duffell, ibid, p7.
18. Michael Henderson, 17th November 2008. Prep schools can still teach us something. The Daily Telegraph.
19. Peter Wilby, 20th September 2007. As arbitrary as ever. New Statesman. http://www.newstatesman.com/200709200015
20. Peter Wilby, 26th March 1999. Give every school an Oxbridge place. http://www.newstatesman.com/199903260006