My part in the cuts consultation: Part 1: end charitable status for private schools
Posted on 9 June 2010 | 12:06pm
Dear George and Danny,
Many thanks indeed for the expression of interest in my views, and those of every other citizen, as to where you should consider making cuts in public expenditure. I hope you will ignore that old cynic Nigel Lawson and his preposterous suggestion that this consultation exercise is all a Public Relations ploy designed to buy a little time to build a bit more support for cuts you (George) have more or less decided on already.
A couple of presentational points to begin with if I may. George, I think you need to watch that thing you do with your right hand at the Despatch Box. Well, two things actually. First, you tend to bang it on the Despatch Box when you are not actually making strong points. This is an unwelcome and rather confusing distraction. Banging is good for genuine emphasis (Khrushchev took it a bit far with his shoe, though an occasional hand-bang is ok) but you tend to do it making rather routine points.
Second, when you raise your hand from the Despatch Box, you have a tendency to shape your fingers into an odd kind of claw shape. This is not attractive. Take a look at Bill Clinton making a speech or doing an interview. Try to model your hands on his. If you feel he is too left-wing as a model, John Major was not bad at hands, except when he got defensive, when he would stick his fingers together and waddle them from side to side. But Clinton/Major compromise would serve you better than bang/claw.
Danny, I imagine any media-related budgets will be close to the top of the cuts-list, but I think you should spare a few bob for media training. Your predecessor David Laws may have overdone the Bond vilain, ‘show me a programme and I’ll show you a sharp axe’ body language, but he did at least look like a man with a plan and the balls to see it through. I caught a couple of your interviews yesterday and they were a bit ‘um … er … kind of …. um …. er’ ish, added to which you repeat subordinate clauses which weakens any point you are making. These problems are easily ironed out provided you are conscious of them. George is clearly setting you up to do a lot of the media dirty work, so I think early remedy on this is the order of the day.
Now, to my first suggestion for saving a few million quid. Danny, as a State schoolboy (Lochaber High School, Fort William) I think this may appeal to you more than it will to George (Norland Place and St Paul’s, own kids in one of the most expensive private schools in the country.) But I hope you will both consider it on its merits, rather than as a result of your own backgrounds.
I refer to the £100million a year benefit that private schools get by dint of their charitable status and the tax advantages that gives them. This is defended, by George if not by Danny, on the grounds that these schools provide a broader public benefit. Establishing it is not easy, and the debate on it rather muted, as most editors and many other key opinion formers use the private sector, and so tend to assert rather than explore the weakness of their assertions. Hilariously, George’s old school claims its places are not offered on the basis of race, creed, background or wealth.
The charity commission is aware of the problem, which is why it set a more stringent test to establish this so-called broder public benefit. Most private schools now get round it by offering a few bursaries. However, these are academically selective so tend to go to more advantaged pupils anyway and disadvantage local state schools which lose pupils who would otherwise contribute to a more balanced intake.
Other schools make a virtue of opening up their facilities to outsiders, including other schools. But as they tend to charge for this, it again undermines the need for public money to be spent on supporting them.
It is interesting too – and Danny, I think that you need to take a look at this – that whilst many private schools make claims to supporting the less advantaged in their communities, the Independent Schools Council can’t even say how many pupils on free school meals they educate. I am assuming they know the answer but are too embarrassed to reveal it. Close to zero possibly?
To be fair to you, George, I know you believe the private sector is almost always better than the State, and believe also that if people can afford to go private, they should, not least so their kids can avoid the hoi-polloi. But Danny, this is a coalition, and you need to start making and winning a few arguments.
Like the argument that private schools are bad for society as a whole, and cost the tax payer dearly; that they act as a break on social cohesion and social mobility; that they cream off able students and aspirant parents from the state system and reduce every other child’s chance of being educated in a genuinely comprehensive school, still the best route to high outcomes for all children rather than simply an affluent few.
Above all, Danny, the argument that they divide young people by race, class and family income at a time when more than ever we should be bridging those divides. After all, as George said every day during the election campaign, and Danny said (albeit looking a bit embarrassed to be doing so) on TV last night … we are all in this together.
Only we’re not, are we? Not really. But we could be if we cared more about education for the many rather than the few.
So go for it Danny. £100million. And a good argument to win, to show you are not just there to do the dirty work, but to show that the coalition is a coalition rather than a Cameron/Osborne walkover, which is how it seems right now.
*** Buy The Blair Years and raise cash for Labour http://www.alastaircampbell.org/bookshop.php.
*** Buy Prelude to Power here at Amazon.