In order for an organisation to gain charitable status, it must have a “charitable purpose”, according to the government. But it’s difficult to imagine anything stretching the credibility of this definition to quite such a ludicrous extreme as private schools.
In order for something to be charitable it must show a clear transfer of assets from those with something to give, to the needy. A charity might take money from rich Britons and use it to help starving children in Sudan. It might fund research into an incurable disease. It certainly shouldn’t be put straight into the pocket of the donator’s own children. A business, on the other hand, represents someone paying for something and getting something else in return. I might hand over £2 and get a cup of coffee, or $375.3m and get an airbus a380. If I was a starving Sudanese child I could find £6.10 and be fed for a whole year, but I couldn’t, which is why a charity steps in.
The children who go to private school are not starving Sudanese children. They are the children of wealthy (or at least, wealthier) parents who are fortunate enough to have a superior education paid for by those parents. A private school is a business; you pay money and you get something in return. It can be non-profit business, certainly, but non-profit does not mean charity.
I’m not making an issue of this because it makes private schools appear charitable when in fact they are anything but. That would be pointless semantics, and would be of no consequence to anything. The reason this is an important point is because charitable status means that private schools pay no tax at all. Literally nothing. In effect, the treasury (and by extension, the UK tax payer) is subsidising private schools to the tune of £700m a year, or the lost salaries of 32,591 NHS nurses. This is especially galling when wealthy foreigners are sending their children to private school, with the treasury gaining nothing from this utilisation of our national resources. This also, of course, means donations to private schools are entirely tax deductible. At a time when corporations and individuals are being rightly vilified in the press for their greed, we must recognise that private schools being tax exempt is a yawning tax outrage of epic proportions.
Of course this is the point in the debate when the defenders of private schools’ tax-exempt status roll out examples that allegedly show that private schools are charitable. Private schools do offer scholarships to disadvantaged pupils. But two or three pupils in a year group of over a hundred does not amount to a charity. Can you imagine if 99% of your donation to Oxfam went to staff salaries, and less than 1% to hungry Sudanese children. I’m not sure you’d be particularly impressed with that charity. In fact, it would definitely be stripped of its charitable status immediately. Scholarships to private schools are not an example of a school being a charity, they are more akin to corporate social responsibility.
Having been educated at a private school myself, I appreciate the incredible opportunities I have been given (even if I really, really didn’t enjoy being there). On the whole, private schools do an excellent job of teaching the pupils lucky enough to be able to pay; if they didn’t, of course, nobody would bother spending the money. But we also know that private schools entrench inequality, allowing the children of the wealthy to climb up the social ladder, or remain at the top of it in many cases, with ease. Don’t believe me? Private schools that educate just 7% of UK school pupils provide 71% of senior judges, 62% of senior armed forces officers, 55% of Whitehall permanent secretaries and 50% of members of the House of Lords. If you’re a person without the wealth to access private school, this is brutally unfair.
Private schools are not going to be banned, and there are some compelling arguments for their existence, despite the social ills they are responsible for. It’s understandable that parents, when faced with sending their child to local comprehensive that has been placed in special measures, use their purchasing power to buy their children access to a much higher quality education. But for these organisations to be legally defined as charities, and to behave as if they exist to do anything other than simply provide a service to the wealthy, is ludicrous and insulting to our collective intelligence. We should no sooner subsidise 5-star hotels or luxury yachts. Private schools must lose their tax exempt status, and pay money into the treasury like any other business for the rich.