Thursday, January 24, 2008

Public Schools- An Education Swindle

From the current edition of Tribune, 25 January
deals with the elitist education system and its origins in, surprise, pillaging the poor.

The report of the Charity Commission on how to implement the “public benefit” provisions of the 2006 Charities Act has provoked an intriguing mixture of indignation and philanthropic endeavour on the part of the public schools.

Eton accused the Charity Commission of "flawed reasoning" and Harrow it had misinterpreted charity law. They claim that it should have taken into account the savings to the government of not educating the public school types, which of course ignores the counter effect of the increased difficulty for state pupils in entering universities, particularly Oxford and Cambridge, afterwards.

The Act’s biggest apparent change was to extend test of “public benefit” to the other traditional heads of charity: the promotion of religion, education, and the relief of poverty. But this is restitution rather than a revolution. The public schools are morally at least stolen property.

The new guidelines are simply restating a long-standing maxim of Charity Law that no charity could exclude the poor. When a government Commission in 1818 asked it why there were so many rich boys at Winchester, a school founded five centuries earlier d for seventy "poor and needy" scholars, the headmaster replied that the boys were totally without money -- it was their parents who were rich. From the responses to this Commission's report, the excuses have not improved over the centuries.

However, the judges whose decisions have created charity law over the centuries stretched that to breaking point – particularly in the case of public schools, which so many of them attended.

The privileges claimed by the schools are not nearly as ancient as their original obligations as charities. In Victorian times, many of the schools paid tax on their profits. It took years of assiduous lobbying by the Headmasters' Conference before Winston Churchill’s 1927 Finance Act exempted profits from trade if they arose from the primary purpose of the charity.

But that is minor compared with the original sin of elite purloining of ancient foundations begun as endowments for the “education of poor and indigent scholars,” In a striking demonstration of the solidarity and power of the public school boys in parliament, the actual Endowed Schools Act that parliament passed in 1869 totally reversed the direction of the Bill’s original intentions of establishing a modern education system that would equip the nation for the modern world.

Instead it set up an Endowed Schools Commission, which did just what the Headmasters wanted. On their behalf old statutes and trust deeds were set aside, blowing away all the old semi-feudal relics -- like free places for poor scholars, or provision for the education of the local community -- as well as the more necessary removal of restrictions on curricula. Even more shamelessly, the commissioners confiscated charities that provided food and cash for poor families that they regarded as outmoded, and handed them over to the schools.

In effect, they took bread from the mouths and coal from the hearths of the poor to fund schools for the privileged classes. Even more cynically, they made admission to the public schools dependent on “merit,” which they measured by proficiency in Latin or Greek – subjects that the average workers' children were unlikely to study. That led to the development of fee-paying preparatory schools – which were not charities – to prepare. Paying the fees to those, not "merit," was the real entry test to the public institutions. In fact, the Public Schools owe the whole nation huge reparations for their part in creating and perpetuating a ruling elite that was totally unprepared for a modern technological world.

Opponents of the elitist privileges represented by the public schools often call for the withdrawal of charitable status as if it were just a case of tax relief. They are falling into a trap. The title of “Public” schools is not just some quaint British anomaly. The schools are public institutions, charities, even if they have been hijacked and suborned by the upper classes. Indeed the move to call them “Independent” schools was probably intended to break any inconvenient associations with “public” service.

Their charitable status is not just about tax exemption, it is about all the bequests and endowments made to them because they are charities. Withdrawing their charitable status would be privatization without compensation. The appropriate response is to enforce their charitable obligations as the Charity Commission has now decided.

It is hardly that innovatory. As well as drawing upon centuries-old legal principles, the proposal has been both propounded and procrastinated for decades, indeed centuries. For example in 1975, noted that many public schools "were founded not simply for the advancement of education, but specifically for the education of the poor... We believe that our recommendation to make a test of public benefit the over-riding consideration with that of education accords both with the spirit in which our Sixteenth Century public schools were founded and with a widespread public feeling today that charitable activities should not be manifestly devoted to privilege or exclusiveness."

There will be howls of “confiscation” from the public school lobby, but charities have obligations as well as privileges, and in fact, any such plan to open educational and social advantage to the whole of society would be redressing an historic wrong. To incorporate the public schools into a national education system, in whatever form, would be more in the nature of restitution than expropriation. Those grammar schools that the state system incorporated in the seventies and earlier were not the subject of compensation. Similarly, the National Health Service's takeover of the voluntary charitable hospitals in 1948 involved no compensation for the same reason that they were still being used for the same public benefit as before.

Sadly, just as ex public school boys have suborned charity law in the past, the administrative fixes proposed by the 2006 Charity Act, in effect leaving it to the judiciary, are unlikely to end the self-perpetuating elitism that the public schools represent. Most judges are the beneficiaries of public school education themselves. They are unlikely to want to rock the schools’ boat too much.

In 1931 R H Tawney succinctly summed up the main argument against them. "The idea that differences of educational opportunity among children should depend upon differences in wealth among parents is barbaric." The solution has to be a new Endowed Schools Act,, in which parliament (itself heavily populated by public school alumni but at least directly accountable) sets out an agenda for the schools that reflects their original purposes and the present social needs. In the meantime, the guidelines are step towards correction of the great school robbery of a previous era.

Ian Williams wrote the "Alms Trade: Charities Past Present and Future" published originally by Unwin Hyman, reprinted last year by Cosimo Press which has two chapters on education and charity.

No comments: