Friday, 18 January 2008

Charity Begins at School

One recent government announcement I welcomed is the review of the charitable status granted to private schools. It seems odd that profit-making bodies which charge fees so hight that only wealthy people can afford to send their children to them get charitable status in the UK which means they get tax breaks which saves them millions of pounds per year. They trumpet their academic success, but it is unsurprising when they have such high staff to student ratios; most children would benefit from having greater time in class with their teacher. In the average school lesson of 45 minutes, with the common class of 30 pupils, each pupil will have an equivalent of 1.3 minutes with the teacher, if you take out the time it takes for them to come in and settle down. Every time another pupil is disruptive they effectively steal this time from their fellow pupils as the teacher has to take out time from teaching to deal with it. Of course typically pupils are taught together, but with smaller class sizes in private schools each pupil is far more liable to get individual attention and their education will benefit. As I have noted in previous postings pupils from richer families benefit educationally even when they are in the public sector let alone when in schools with a selected intake.

Whilst I sympathise with the argument that the UK should have no private schools and certainly no 'public' schools (as in the weird UK definition, i.e. elite private schools, as opposed to state schools which are free and open to the public), you can argue that if someone wants to set up a business teaching people they should be free to do so. The difficulty for private schools is the buying power of the middle class has fallen. If civil servants and teachers had as much buying power as they did in the 1950s they would be annually earning over £80,000 (US$157,600; €111,200) whereas they earn around £25-30,000 per year. This means it is difficult for private schools to charge high enough fees to fund the number of staff they want because otherwise they would lose many of their middle class clients who in many cases are the bulk of the parents using some of these schools. This is why financially they have to retain charitable status. Many grant scholarships and open up their facilities to neighbouring communities, but that is the least that should be expected, as the bulk of us pay for state schools through our taxes and are also paying for private schools through charitable status tax breaks even though our children will never get the chance to go to the school let alone be a pupil at it.

Allowing the private school sector to contract from its current standing (2500 private schools in the UK taking 6-7% of school-aged children) would benefit education as a whole across the UK. The schools do not have to teach the National Curriculum which means that the pupils often miss out on in particular the social education which is important in making the pupils tolerant and open-minded, something which is important to have among the people who will make up our elites in the decades to come. Secondly, money saved from not granting all these tax breaks could be channelled into improving schools and their buildings and paying state sector teachers decent salaries. Many schools are suffering from decaying buildings and over-crowded classrooms, partly because money is being siphoned off to grant tax breaks to private schools. A third benefit is that it would make comparatively well-off middle class parents send their children into the state sector and with it bring funds and support for many ordinary schools which will benefit them. The top echelons of the middle class do not care about ordinary state schools or how far they decay because they exempt themselves from that system; they are rich and articulate so can turn their strengths into these ordinary schools. In addition, their children will mix with ordinary people which hopefully will begin to break down the barriers in our society which are painfully harsh; maybe the rich children will despise the ordinary ones, but the ordinary pupils will see that the elites are in fact just human like themselves. It would also provide a more level playing field for ordinary pupils as those pupils who otherwise would have gone to private schools would have to work for their education and their qualifications rather than being led through it by one-on-one tuition in their small classes.

Thus, I urge the government to strip all private schools and certainly all public schools, of charitable status immediately. The collapse of the private education sector cannot come about fast enough (I imagine many private schools will find ways of wriggling out of it, but even if we lose 30-40% it will begin to help change occur) if we are going to achieve a truly well-educated and less socially-divided UK.

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