MAY 12, 2011



In England, which, unlike Australia has a Charities Commission and accountability for charities, a court case is imminent about the meaning of charitable status for private  schools.

The dispute about charitable status has only just started in Australia with the work of Max Wallace – The Purple Economy ( 2008) . But according to Fiona Miller in The Guardian of 10 May 2011,  the issue has been simmering in the UK for several years.

The 2006 Charities Act (UK) removed the presumption that all charities providing education automatically provide a public benefit. The then government swiftly offloaded the task of explaining what that meant in practice to the Charity Commission, which was required to issue statutory guidance.

The commission's new public benefit test ruled that people in poverty should not be excluded from the services of these "charities"; that their benefits should be made available to a "sufficient" section of the population, be quantifiable and reported on annually. The days of sharing the swimming pool and requiring pupils to undertake the odd charitable run appeared to be over in the UK.

It is doubtful whether even those small crumbs are scattered from the sectarian school table in Australia.

A slow war of attrition has been grinding on between the private charity school sector in the UK and the Charities Commission. Many schools assumed that increasing the number of bursaries would tick this box, others barely changed, and, in 2009, the Charity Commission put a sample five schools to the test. Two failed because they provided too few bursaries, and the Independent Schools Council, which oversees about 1,000 private charity schools, has been given leave to judicially review the commission's guidance.

The case starts next week, and the  core argument, of the private schools is familiar to Australian public school supporters.  They suggest that the UK should simply return to the pre-2006 status quo because charitable private schools already educate a "sufficiently wide" section of the public to a very high standard while not explicitly barring entry to anyone else. Apparently their doors are technically open to all, in the same way that anyone is theoretically free to ‘have dinner at the Ritz, buy a Bentley or take their holidays in Mustique’.

As Fiona Miller writes:

Schools that charge fees approaching the average net earnings of some families are plainly not open to a broad cross-section of the public. Look at their websites and it is clear to see why they cost so much. Beagling, polo, golf courses, rowing lakes and recording studios jostle for attention with classes half the size of those in the state sector, access to the top universities, high-level networks and strings to pull in a gold-plated service that the rest of us subsidise and which simultaneously divides young people by race, class and family income, acting as a break on social cohesion as well as social mobility.

The Guardian journalist could be describing the Australian situation . It makes one wonder about the level of class distinctions now rampant in our so-called egalitarian country. And we thought that our forefathers had come all the way to this country to avoid the class structures of the UK. If anything, the UK is further ahead of Australia in trying to do something about it.

Fiona Miller continues:

The idea that a handful of subsidies, – many of which do not fully cover the fees and are often offered to siblings, families of alumni and staff – should magically turn these institutions into charities is absurd. Most bursaries are linked to academically selective tests more likely to favour the impoverished middle classes than the socially excluded poor, and also deprive many state schools of the academic mix they need to do well.

There are people who would like to see these public disbenefits eradicated by the simple blanket removal of charitable status from all private sectarian schools, but this is a more complicated legal process than many assume.

One campaigning organisation, the Education Review Group, has been given permission to intervene in the case. Its submission suggests that the Commission should require more exacting eligibility criteria for bursaries. They should  focus them on  pupils most at risk of exclusion .

The private charity schools will say their core job is educating an elite very well. Some of their parents, many of whom are powerful voices in society, will object to their fees being diverted into "legs up" to schools they have rejected for their own children. But charitable status is a right to be earned, not a privilege.

The Guardian newspaper argues that until the private sector can make a better case for the public benefit it provides, it should do more than simply exist.

If Julia Gillard continues to insist that Australia introduce the educational mistakes of the United Kingdom and United States a few years after they have failed, perhaps she could follow the UK and look at the introduction of a Charities Commission and accountability for charitable status of private sectarian schools in Australia.



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