Who gains from the ‘public benefit’ activities of private schools?

Britain has a large and energetic charitable sector. The word charity conjures up images of community, altruism and help for the vulnerable. Private schools require most pupils to pay fees averaging nearly £13 thousand a year (2014 figures) and largely cater for the children of the very well off. Despite this, many private schools are also charities. Can we harness private schools to the wider public benefit?

Recent LLAKES-IOE/University of Kent research funded by the ESRC shows some of the problems. Private school trustees are required by the Charities Acts and an Upper Tribunal ruling to promote unrestricted ‘public benefit’ that is more than ‘tokenistic’, but they have a good deal of autonomy in deciding what to do. In practice schools pursue very different activities and devote widely varying amounts of resources to them, often subject to their financial means and local context. Our research examined activities intended to promote public benefit and conducted detailed interviews with headteachers at eight private schools and four state schools. Perceived public benefit activities fell into three groups: bursaries for school fees; sharing resources and expertise and fundraising and volunteer activities.

Some schools had established partnerships with state schools of enduring collaboration for mutual success, and all schools spoke of their commitment to providing public benefit. There emerged, however, constraints on private schools and conflicting concerns and interests to manage. In rural areas, for example, where competition for pupils is high, equitable relationships between the state and private sectors are harder to maintain than in inner cities, where there are more pupils to go around. Some eight per cent of private school pupils nationally receive bursaries, with wide variations between schools. Bursaries range in value from 10 to one hundred per cent fee remission. All the headteachers saw benefits from bursaries for the pupils themselves and for their private schools. As one private headteacher put it:

“It’s a much more healthy balance of pupil body and gives that real feeling of community, otherwise the danger would be it would be a rarefied strata of society that was being educated in a particular way, which isn’t good ultimately for social cohesion, isn’t good for the school itself.”

Sharing facilities and staff expertise was also seen as good for the pupils and for private schools. A number of private headteachers mentioned the value of visits as a marketing tool, in getting outsiders who might not otherwise think of private schooling to experience their grounds and facilities:

“… some may well think that it would be great to have an education here…so they might well apply for a scholarship.”

“Obviously with…Year 5s and 6s, we’ve got parents who might consider sending their children to us anyway, so it’s sort of in our interest…”

From the point of state school headteachers this raised the question of how much it is in their interest to cooperative with private schools and risk losing their brightest pupils and damaging their test result profile. Referring to a recent recruit on a bursary a private headteacher commented:

“the [state] school there will be sad to lose him because he’ll do wonders for their SATS scores…”

Another private headteacher said the school “simply has to attract enough people, and if we pinch one or two able students from local schools, OK”. Another referred to ‘siphoning off’ the ‘elite’. This has serious implications for state schools, as one state school headteacher explained: “…they’re very business-like, the private sectors, extremely business-like, and they caused a lot of problems for us…we paid for it heavily. It’s not performing their charity…it’s doing the exact opposite … They’re actually making us not viable because they pinch my top [pupils]…So they’re not doing the charity work.” Many private schools made the point that their books had to balance and that they were very tightly constrained by the demands of parents of fee-paying pupils who would be reluctant for a proportion of the money they paid to be diverted for the benefit of others.

“There come moments when they have to ask the question what is the price here, our duty is to govern this place.”

“To what extent does the private sector have a duty, a moral duty, to make the public sector better?”

Our research highlights the problems of harnessing independent charities to the public good. Fee-paying students are necessarily private schools’ first priority, even if they are committed to the principle of public benefit provision. All but the richest private schools need the fees to offer highly resource-intensive education and attract parents willing to pay the amounts required. Bursaries may aid low-income students but also fill places in private schools with pupils likely to get good exam results that might otherwise have been empty; contacts with the state sector result in mutual learning and broaden pupil’s experience in both sectors, but are also a useful way of marketing the school; voluntary activities may well produce more responsible citizens but many state schools also undertake such work. If they are permitted to do so, private schools will pursue their own goals through public benefit provision, and will always weigh the advantages (as they see them) of public benefit activities against the costs.

Note: The research is reported in more detail in: Wilde, R., Green, F., Taylor-Gooby, P. and Wiborg. S. (2015) ‘Private Schools and the Provision of Public Benefit’, Journal of Social Policy forthcoming.

This research is open access: http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0047279415000719

By Peter Taylor-Gooby