Independent schools should not feel any obligation to sponsor raft of new academies
Urging independent schools to sponsor academies could be more to do with finance than moral duty, argues Keith Morrow , head teacher at the Elms Junior School, Long Eaton.
THE former Schools Minister, Lord Adonis, recently urged private schools to sponsor academies as part of their charitable responsibility.
As educational charities, independent schools get tax benefits and have to demonstrate their wider public benefit to the Charity Commission.
But Lord Adonis also claimed many private schools are failing to fulfil their original charitable purpose, saying trustees of private schools should look at their charitable values as a "matter of conscience and duty" and get involved in academies.
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Last month, the National Audit Office revealed a larger-than-expected number of schools applied to the Department for Education for academy status. The result of this was an additional cost of £1billion.
The Chancellor's announcement in his Autumn statement that savings from Whitehall cuts would go towards building 100 new free schools and academies, creating an additional 50,000 new school places, is welcomed.
We are living in a generation where the primary school population is set to grow by 450,000 in five years. But the financial burden of funding academies will still ultimately lay with the taxpayer.
This brings me back to Lord Adonis. It is little wonder that his call to the independent sector to sponsor academies finds so much favour with Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove. Let's make no bones about it, this is not so much a moral imperative as a financial one.
It can be hard to write about independent education without incurring instant wrath. There continues this popular misconception that all children at independent schools are born with a silver spoon in their mouths, which is simply misinformed and untrue.
Independent schools, which save the exchequer and the taxpayer an estimated £7billion per year, receive no money from the state and instead rely on parents paying fees from their taxed income.
In effect, parents are paying twice in order to send their children to independent schools – once in fees and again through their taxes.
Often children at independent schools are there at great personal and financial sacrifice of parents who work extremely hard to give their children the best possible start in life.
When I think about the children attending independent schools whose parents have moved to smaller homes, drive battered old cars and forego holidays, it makes me very angry that there are still sections of our society that feel it is okay to judge and draw easy conclusions.
The real question, therefore, is why are these parents willing to pay twice for the education of their children? What is it independent schools do so well that some parents make huge financial sacrifices in order to send their children?
Lord Adonis overlooked two very important factors when criticising the apparent lack of appetite from the independent sector in not jumping into bed with the Government over sponsoring academies and there are several significant reasons why independent schools should not feel a sense of duty to do so.
Firstly, independent schools are exactly that, independent from government interference in terms of curriculum and how they operate. It is what has enabled independent schools to meet the aspirational needs of pupils and parents for many generations. This independence should be, and is being, fiercely defended.
Secondly, Britain is still feeling the consequences of the financial crisis. Many independent schools are simply not in a position to give away income from fee-paying parents and let the Government off the hook in terms of adequately funding state education. Many independent schools are struggling to hang on to pupils and support parents whose businesses or income has suffered as a result of the economic downturn.
If some independent schools have a willingness to sponsor government-funded academies that is their prerogative but the sector as a whole should not feel obliged to follow.
The charitable status of independent schools has been under the political microscope ever since a judicial review of the Charity Commission last year sought to change the legal definition of what constitutes a charity.
The independent education sector successfully argued there is no "one size fits all" model of charitable engagement but still the spotlight is on independent schools to vigorously justify their charitable status.
The vast majority of independent schools do demonstrate their "public benefit" in a huge variety of ways.
This can be as diverse as running master classes in particular subjects, sharing campus facilities with local organisations, fund-raising for local and national charities, involvement with education projects overseas, holding community or field days supporting local charitable groups and children with special needs.
In addition, many schools offer various bursaries and schemes to widen social access and diversity to a first-class independent education.
The taxation benefits the independent sector receives as charities are small in comparison to the benefits to the country of the independent sector being in place.
If all independent schools closed tomorrow and the pupils entered the state sector the general rise in the basic level of taxation needed to fund the additional school places would place a huge burden on the public purse, making any savings made by the sector by keeping their charitable status seem totally irrelevant.
The reaction to Lord Adonis' comments rumbles on.
But when the government has developed a state education sector to mirror the success of the independent education sector, parents will make their choices accordingly and the arguments of charitable status will be defunct. Then we can debate how affluent parents are skewing the housing market in the catchment areas of "good schools".
Until then Lord Adonis and his supporters should focus on how to make all schools as good as independent schools and consign the politics of envy to their rightful place.