EVEN among left-wingers, few talk about banning independent schools nowadays. There are craftier ways of overhauling the education system to fight privilege. One of them hit the headlines this week when the Charity Commission published its first “public-benefit” assessment, including five private schools among its chosen charitable specimens. Two–Highfield Priory in Lancashire and S. Anselm’s in Derbyshire–failed the tough new requirement to show that they are helping the general public. The schools have a year to come up with a plan to get on track, or risk being taken over or closed down.
For centuries education has been considered a charitable activity, with no questions asked. In 2006 the rules were changed. Under the Charities Act of that year, schools are no longer entitled to the tax breaks that charitable status confers simply because they provide teaching. Instead, they have to demonstrate that they are actively benefiting the public. It has fallen to the regulator to interpret and apply the law: the commission says charities that charge fees, such as private schools, must ensure that “people in poverty” can use their services. The two schools that the commission flunked did not provide those who cannot afford the fees “sufficient opportunity to benefit”.