"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 is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.

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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.