Analysis: Clear messages from public benefit debate

Written by: John Clarke | Published:
Making the case: Independent schools, such as Eton College pictured above, are keeping a close eye on the discussions about public benefit (Photo: iStock)

The issue of public benefit and independent schools is back on the education agenda. John Clarke considers the implications for state and independent schools after a recent House of Lords debate

The House of Lords caused something of a stir recently, by attempting to make a law that would force independent schools to share their facilities with the state sector and the local community to remain charitable.

The proposal wasn’t taken forward (at least at this stage), but it is clear from the comments made by the House of Lords, and the reaction of the Independent Schools Council (ISC) that sharing facilities is back in favour, and independent schools are going to have to take a look at how much they do, and whether they need to be reporting on it more.

There is a concern that the state sector is suffering from a government-led focus on academia, and a lack of “soft skill” teaching, which builds confidence and improves the social competence of young people. Independent schools are deemed very good at the “whole person” learning and education model, and this is helped by some of the outstanding facilities that such schools have to offer.

Therefore, the House of Lords felt that more should be done to encourage the independent sector to share those facilities with the state sector, and thus improve the educational journey of state school pupils.

Forgive me if you are reading this thinking that this is nothing new and startling, but this is where we are, and there are two clear messages from this attempted legal change.

The first is that the independent sector needs to be better at publicising what they already do in the local community.

The second is that the education sector as a whole should be looking at how state and independent schools currently work together, and whether there are any improvements to be made to those partnerships.

The ISC and Charity Commission are working on the first message. The Charity Commission has undertaken to promote facility-sharing as a means of demonstrating public benefit through the addition of new examples in the public benefit guidance documents (see further information), and will also commission a study into how much sharing already goes on in the sector, and how effective any “encouragement” over the next 12 months has been.

For the second message, schools need to be looking at what they are actually doing in terms of sharing facilities, and assessing how well this is publicised in the annual report.

Those that don’t do as much will need to start looking at what they have to offer that they don’t already, and whether it is appropriate in all the circumstances to increase that offer.

The state sector, on the other hand, needs to be looking at what they need/would like in terms of facilities (including staffing and coaching) that they can’t get themselves.

The ISC is developing the Schools Together part of its website so that it champions schools who do share facilities, and provides examples of good practice.

It is also hoped that by September, schools will be able to register on the website to say what it is they need, or what they have to offer, to better enable schools to get together.

Of course, the key element in all of this has to be the benefit of the pupils, and this is precisely why a law that forced the sharing of facilities would not work.

What we do not want to see, is an increase in the sharing of facilities simply for the sake of trying to demonstrate public benefit, rather than for the improvement and enrichment of the young people who will benefit.

This is what the Charity Commission (and the House of Lords) need to bear in mind when looking at any “evidence”, because this is a wide and diverse sector, and what works in a wealthy suburb of London will not work in a rural hamlet.

Equally, state schools need to consider what it is they want or need from their neighbours in terms of what would benefit their pupils – not just taking whatever might be on offer in the local area, and not always presuming that the independent school will have better facilities.

Essentially, this new push for schools to share facilities should be a win-win for all, provided it is done with the right intentions.

State schools will get the benefit of the publicity by the ISC as to what is available, and how best to utilise what is being offered, and the independent sector will benefit by having a more tangible and visible way of showing that schools have been, and continue to, meet the public benefit requirement which gives them their charitable status.

So until the next initiative is announced, a quick assessment of facility sharing is on the cards...

  • John Clarke is a partner in Stone King’s education law department and heads the firm’s independent schools team.

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