"Sod it, let's add another two grand to the fees, they'll suck it up." Image: Getty.
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Even rich parents don’t benefit from charitable status for schools

Running schools as charities has simply insulated them from the consequences of their own financial incontinence. 

Most private schools, as any fule kno, are charities. This probably made sense back in the 1400s, when Eton and Harrow genuinely existed to educate poor local boys, but it seems a bit of an anachronism now they’re basically a machine for turning rich kids into Cabinet ministers. Charitable status, it's often argued, is bad for state schools, bad for social mobility, and bad for the taxpayer.

All this you've heard before, and either you believe it to be self-evidently true, or you think it's a load of nonsense put about by envious lefties. Nothing I write here is going to affect your position on this.

So let's try a different argument. Charitable status, I’m certain, has done untold damage to private schools themselves. And it's been an absolute disaster for the families whose kids attend them. Abolishing charitable status would be good for very nearly everybody. 

The dirty little secret of Britain's private schools is that many of them are not, in fact, very good. I don't mean educationally (although when the OECD last looked school standards, it found that they were almost exactly as good as state schools). What I mean is that they're not very well run.

Most businesses, for understandable reasons, spend a lot of time worrying about money. They want costs to be low; they want sales to be high. If the latter isn't bigger than the former, then everyone knows it's goodnight Vienna.

But charitable status has helped insulate to schools from such earthly concerns. They've enthusiastically spent the stuff on all sorts of things (swimming pools, concert halls, minuscule class sizes) that make little difference educationally, but look bloody good in the brochure. Then, at the end of this year, they tot up their costs, and adjust their income to meet them.

A school can’t just add five per cent more pupils every year, of course: they have to raise their price. The result is that, between 2001 and 2011, according to educational consultancy MTM, average school fees rose by 83 per cent. The incomes of the richest 10th of Britons rose by less than a third of that. This isn’t a fact that’s likely to elicit much sympathy, but even if you’re loaded, that’s going to sting a bit.

Revoking charitable status wouldn't immediately fix this: removing those tax breaks would probably mean more schools went under, at least in the short term. But over time, it would prevent financially incontinent head teachers from squealing, "We're a charity!" whenever parents query the latest increase in fees. Turning schools into businesses would force them to think a whole lot harder about whether they can actually afford that extra swimming pool, rather than just thinking, "Meh, the parents are good for it". It would take away their crutch.

It’s worth asking again who benefits from private schools’ charitable status. The public don't. The taxpayer doesn't. And even rich parents, for whose benefit the schools are supposed to be run, are increasingly getting screwed by it. 

The only people who benefit from charitable status are incompetent head teachers who’ve never learnt to use an Excel spreadsheet. No wonder they're so desperate to hang onto it.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

Photo: André Spicer
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“It’s scary to do it again”: the five-year-old fined £150 for running a lemonade stand

Enforcement officers penalised a child selling home-made lemonade in the street. Her father tells the full story. 

It was a lively Saturday afternoon in east London’s Mile End. Groups of people streamed through residential streets on their way to a music festival in the local park; booming bass could be heard from the surrounding houses.

One five-year-old girl who lived in the area had an idea. She had been to her school’s summer fête recently and looked longingly at the stalls. She loved the idea of setting up her own stall, and today was a good day for it.

“She eventually came round to the idea of selling lemonade,” her father André Spicer tells me. So he and his daughter went to their local shop to buy some lemons. They mixed a few jugs of lemonade, the girl made a fetching A4 sign with some lemons drawn on it – 50p for a small cup, £1 for a large – and they carried a table from home to the end of their road. 

“People suddenly started coming up and buying stuff, pretty quickly, and they were very happy,” Spicer recalls. “People looked overjoyed at this cute little girl on the side of the road – community feel and all that sort of stuff.”

But the heart-warming scene was soon interrupted. After about half an hour of what Spicer describes as “brisk” trade – his daughter’s recipe secret was some mint and a little bit of cucumber, for a “bit of a British touch” – four enforcement officers came striding up to the stand.

Three were in uniform, and one was in plain clothes. One uniformed officer turned the camera on his vest on, and began reciting a legal script at the weeping five-year-old.

“You’re trading without a licence, pursuant to x, y, z act and blah dah dah dah, really going through a script,” Spicer tells me, saying they showed no compassion for his daughter. “This is my job, I’m doing it and that’s it, basically.”

The girl burst into tears the moment they arrived.

“Officials have some degree of intimidation. I’m a grown adult, so I wasn’t super intimidated, but I was a bit shocked,” says Spicer. “But my daughter was intimidated. She started crying straight away.”

As they continued to recite their legalese, her father picked her up to try to comfort her – but that didn’t stop the officers giving her stall a £150 fine and handing them a penalty notice. “TRADING WITHOUT LICENCE,” it screamed.


Picture: André Spicer

“She was crying and repeating, ‘I’ve done a bad thing’,” says Spicer. “As we walked home, I had to try and convince her that it wasn’t her, it wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t her who had done something bad.”

She cried all the way home, and it wasn’t until she watched her favourite film, Brave, that she calmed down. It was then that Spicer suggested next time they would “do it all correctly”, get a permit, and set up another stand.

“No, I don’t want to, it’s a bit scary to do it again,” she replied. Her father hopes that “she’ll be able to get over it”, and that her enterprising spirit will return.

The Council has since apologised and cancelled the fine, and called on its officials to “show common sense and to use their powers sensibly”.

But Spicer felt “there’s a bigger principle here”, and wrote a piece for the Telegraph arguing that children in modern Britain are too restricted.

He would “absolutely” encourage his daughter to set up another stall, and “I’d encourage other people to go and do it as well. It’s a great way to spend a bit of time with the kids in the holidays, and they might learn something.”

A fitting reminder of the great life lesson: when life gives you a fixed penalty notice, make lemonade.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.