Independent schools and public benefit
Independent schools are rightly proud of their independence. It allows them to act in the best interests of the pupils, parents and communities they serve free from political influence and bureaucratic control.
Independent schools provide an excellent education because they are independent and because they are well funded. Politicians are keen for independent schools to sponsor state academies so that they can pass on their ‘DNA’. This ‘DNA’ includes some excellent educational practices and partly explains why the independent sector has done so well for so long, but it is not a universal panacea. What state schools really need is not independent school ‘DNA’, but levels of independent school funding. The fees independent schools charge mean that per pupil funding is typically double or more that of the state sector. With twice as much money to spend it is no wonder that independent schools have lower teacher pupil ratios, more pastoral support and extra curricular activities, and better educational facilities all of which contribute to higher levels of pupil attainment. The state school Heads I work with are uniformly excellent. They manage financially challenging situations and have to extract maximum value from the resources they have; this has honed their leadership and management skills. Their ‘DNA’ is no better or worse than mine, what is different is the level of funding and unfortunately in cash strapped Britain that is unlikely to improve soon. We need to get more resources into state schools, and here it is reasonable that independent schools play an appropriate part by delivering reasonable public benefit.
Public benefit is much discussed but poorly defined. It involves independent schools providing a financial benefit to variously the poor / the state / state schools / local and international communities at least equivalent to the value of the tax reliefs that independent schools receive. How much public benefit is enough is a contentious question. A few wealthy independent schools have endowments that can fund public benefit programmes many times the size of their charitable tax relief without having to charge parents more in higher fees. Many more independent schools have limited fee resources, such that some of the costs of additional public benefit work get transferred to parents in the form of higher fees. If fees rise to pay for more public benefit some parents get priced out of independent education and transfer back to the state. This represents a net transfer of costs back from the private sector to the state, and means that the already squeezed state education budget has to be shared between even more children.
There are thus practical financial limits on the extent of public benefit that independent schools can deliver. There is also a parent fairness dimension. Independent school parents already pay in their taxes for a state education they do not use, so to pay again in higher independent school fees to subsidise state schools through public benefit activities could be seen as unfair. It is all a question of extent, but there will be a fairness cap on public benefit.
The form that public benefit takes is also contentious. In 2011 a judicial review concluded that it should be down to the trustees of each and every charitable independent school to decide what forms of public benefit would do most good in the context of their schools and their communities. This devolved responsibility creates a flexible public benefit system that can adapt to the strengths of independent schools and the needs of the local state sector both of which change through time. Since 2011 there has been a blossoming of a diverse range of public benefit activities. At The Perse these include partnerships with 17 different primary schools to provide educational resources and opportunities including modern foreign language teaching, maths support, science workshops, outdoor pursuits training, computer programming and pupil mentoring. These are all voluntary partnerships which deliver real needs and significant ‘chalk face’ benefits to state school pupils. Perse staff and students also gain from them as teachers have new professional development opportunities and our students acting as classroom assistants and mentors develop their communication, patience, and emotional intelligence skills.
In a Green Paper published in autumn 2016 the government signalled its intention to push for a more prescriptive form of public benefit. Instead of independent school trustees deciding on the form of public benefit, the government would tell the sector what to do. More precisely the public benefit would align with government education policy such that independent schools would be required to sponsor free schools and academies. Understandably independent schools who take no direct money from the government do not like being told what to do by it. They are not keen to be agents of government policy, especially when many have doubts about the wisdom of that policy.
So where does this leave us? In my view it boils down to the following. The quality of state education is compromised by limited resources. Independent schools can and should help state schools address educational shortfalls. Public benefit should not be politicised and used to promote a particular government’s pet educational project. Instead the exact form that public benefit takes should be a matter for the schools involved to decide based on local needs and expertise.
And finally there needs to be a cap and collar on public benefit. We need to agree acceptable maximum and minimum levels of provision. Charitable independent schools must do enough public benefit to justify their charitable status, but not so much that the consequent increase in fees price children out of independent schools and the sector out of existence.