Top private schools’ ‘paltry’ charity work revealed
Occasional tours of a WW2 bunker are among the ways private schools justify their billion-pound charitable status
Tours of a former WW2 bunker owned by a school, use of an observatory, and allowing a nearby nursery to use school grounds in the event of fire are examples of community work used by the UK’s top private schools to justify their charitable tax breaks, openDemocracy has found.
Critics have called the community outreach “paltry” as Labour pushes for the government to strip private schools of their billion-pound tax breaks.
Wycombe Abbey School, a private school in Buckinghamshire that charges £14,700 a term in fees for boarding students, listed “bunker tours” provided to the public in its annual accounts (where it is registered as the Girls’ Education Company Ltd) as an example of its “community partnerships”. A former Second World War bunker is found on the school’s grounds.
In other years, it also listed a parent donating face masks (which were then passed to a hospital) as a community partnership, as well as providing access to the school for a local nursery in the case of a “fire or lockdown”.
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The school also listed volunteer opportunities for students and fundraising. It provided 15 students with full bursaries in 2021 out of 690 students.
Most private schools have charity status entitling them to claim at least 80% relief on business rates in England and Wales. Labour estimated £1.7bn a year would be saved by removing private schools’ charity status.
Under the Charities Act, private schools – attended by 6% of pupils in the UK – must provide more than a “minimal or token” benefit to the poor by outreach work such as offering bursary places, sponsoring free schools or “working with a state school” on projects. Trustees must legally report this work in their annual accounts.
While many private schools offer partly or fully funded bursaries to a percentage of students, census data has revealed the majority do not go to students from low-income families. The Charity Commission was unable to say whether providing bursaries alone was sufficient for a school to qualify as a charity.
The King’s School, Canterbury, which charges up to £13,925 a term, lists providing a local primary school access to its “specialist geology provision and fossil collection” as an example of its community partnerships. According to Schools Together, a website that tracks the partnerships between private schools and the community, evaluation of the impact of this opportunity is “ongoing”.
The King’s School also allows local state school students who attend a breakfast club to come to the school once a term. The school considers this “outreach” work, and described it as “an opportunity for a hearty breakfast in a unique environment, building cultural capital, breaking down barriers and broadening pupils' horizons.”
When contacted, The King’s School confirmed that these partnerships were “live” but did not provide any detail on their frequency or impact. The school also offers volunteer opportunities and raises money for charities. The school’s accounts list 138 means-tested bursaries – but do not disclose how many of these are full rather than partial.
Godolphin and Latymer School, a private London girls’ school charging up to £8,395 a term in fees, listed an Instagram account a student created about breast cancer in 2020 as an example of its charitable work. The school also fundraises and works with local state schools. According to information published on Schools Together, the school provides “around 50” fully funded bursaries.
Westminster School, which can charge up to £15,447 a term, offered the use of its observatory to local primary school students on a Friday evening as part of its community work. When contacted, the school did not clarify how many local primary school students had utilised the observatory as part of the partnership.
Westminster also raises money for charities. It provided 37 fully funded bursaries out of 757 students in 2021.
A spokesperson for the school said: “Westminster, like independent schools all around the country, has engaged in public benefit work for many years, with much collaboration with other schools, charitable work, knowledge sharing, civic engagement and use of facilities as well as big, ongoing projects such as Westminster Platform and Westminster Phab. This work takes place all year round and we are committed to see it continue and grow for many more years to come.”
Private schools' charitable activities are regulated by the Charity Commission, while Ofsted and the Department for Education have additional regulatory powers when it comes to the education they provide. But the Charity Commission would not say if it had ever investigated an independent school for failure to provide public benefit.
In practice, it hardly ever revokes charitable status from any charity as a sanction. It is understood that only cases of “persistent non-reporting” of an independent school’s charity work could warrant investigation by the Charity Commission.
Labour has pledged if elected to strip private schools of their “inexcusable” charitable status, with shadow education secretary Bridget Philipson claiming that “protecting private schools isn't about aspiration for all of our children, it's about ensuring exclusive opportunities remain in the hands of a privileged few."
openDemocracy recently revealed that private schools have received £157m of Covid grants during the pandemic, despite those grants being denied to state schools.
A spokesperson for private school abolition group Integrate Private Schools told openDemocracy the public should question the motivation behind these acts of community outreach.
“It is true that elite private schools lend their resources at times, but this just exemplifies the excess these schools have to begin with,” they told openDemocracy. “Looking at the examples given of bunker tours and paltry sums donated, these are nothing but crumbs from the table that the rest of us should be thankful for.
“We would question the motivation behind these schemes and suggest that it lies less in good-willed charity and more in hope of good publicity, maintaining their public image in defence of millions in state funding.”
openDemocracy has approached all the private schools in this story for comment.
Updated, 1 February 2023: A hyperlink was included in the original version of this article as evidence that charities rarely faced sanctions from the regulator. This article related to Australia, not the UK, and so has been removed.
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