The Charity Commission announced last week that it would publish guidance for independent schools that would require them to show that they offered a public benefit if they wanted to retain their charitable status. In particular, independent schools must prove that they are not ‘exclusive clubs’ but are ‘outward-looking and inclusive’. Dan Hannan and Melanie Phillips among others have already written, far more eloquently than I can, about whether the Charity Commission should be publishing such guidance. I would like to offer some thoughts, from my own experience, of how the state can help the independent sector help children from poorer backgrounds.
I am a governor of a primary school in South London. It’s in the middle of a relatively deprived area. Many of the children who attend the school have English as a second language, many are recent immigrants, and more than 50% qualify for free-school meals. The choice of state secondary schools open to the kids and their parents is not inspiring. About a year ago, I approached a well-known independent secondary school in South London, to make tentative enquiries about encouraging the kids at my Primary to apply to the school and about the scholarships available. The independent school could not have been more helpful. It invited me to bring a teacher from my Primary to look around the school and discuss how we could work together to enable kids from my Primary to apply. Optimistic with the enthusiasm of the independent school, I asked the Head of my Primary to give some dates when a teacher and I could visit the independent school. Despite repeated reminders, I never got a commitment on a date, and no-one from my Primary has visited the independent school with me.
For the independent sector to really help kids from poorer
backgrounds and pass the ‘outward-looking and inclusive’ test set by
the Charity Commission, they need the help and co-operation of teachers
at state primary schools. Teachers at state primaries need to be aware
of the opportunities available and encourage their pupils and their
parents to apply to independent schools. If Heads, teachers and LEA
officials are not supportive of their primary school pupils applying
for, and getting into independent schools, then it will be much harder
for the independent sector to broaden their intake as the government
It is easy to generalise teachers in the state sector as being
hostile to the independent sector and I have no idea if the teachers at
my primary school are. I know how hard teachers in my primary school
work, and I am proud of how well-behaved and polite the kids are. But I
feel that these kids are missing out on opportunities that the
independent sector is only too willing to provide. If the government
really wants independent schools to take in more kids from poorer
backgrounds, it should focus less on bullying the independent sector,
and perhaps focus more on persuading its own employees in the state
sector that they need to do more to encourage the children in their
care, and their parents, to take advantage of the opportunities offered
by the independent sector.