Private schooling in the UK – Beware impending fee rises

3:03 pm Blogroll

UK School Fees

The cost of sending children to private, or independent, schools in the UK could be set to rise dramatically in the coming couple of years as new rules imposed by the Charity Commission begin to kick in.

Under the 2006 Charities Act, forced through by the last Labour government, schools lost their previously automatic right to register as a charity. For many schools, especially smaller ones and those charging relatively low fees, charitable status is absolutely essential as it affords them tax breaks without which they simply couldn’t stay in business. Under the new regime, any independent school wishing to attain charitable status must satisfy the Commission that they “provide public benefit” – a vague requirement which has caused controversy as it is so open to interpretation by the Commission as and how it sees fit.

In 2009, five schools were assessed as part of a preliminary exercise to try out the new rules before they are applied to more than 2000 schools across the UK. Two of them – both small preparatory schools – failed. While both were praised for welcoming the local community to sports and musical events and the like, plus making their facilities available to the local community, they were criticized for not providing enough subsidised places and on this point were told they did not provide enough “public benefit”. As a result both schools have pledged to increase the number of bursaries, and money available to them. They have now passed the CC’s test.

While the two schools concerned have decided that they can meet the additional cost from existing resources plus extra fund-raising activity, many will not be able to. The fear is that schools will be faced with a stark decision – drastically increase fees, or close down – in both cases hitting the families that have supported them, often with great sacrifice, hardest. It is a case of penalizing the many to help the very few and makes very little sense. The government has failed to realize that many middle-income families struggle to make ends meet having chosen to educate their children in the private sector rather than risk a state sector which is widely seen as failing, despite contributing to this sector through income taxes. They are not particularly wealthy, but they know what they value – a good education. And this in itself provides an enormous, though intangible benefit to society which is simply not recognized.

The Independent Schools Council is currently seeking a judicial review of the Commissions guidelines claiming they represent a “gross” misrepresentation of the rules by placing so much weight on the provision of free places.

One has to wonder why, if the government is so keen on getting more children into the independent sector, it doesn’t simply pay the bursaries itself, or spend the money on bringing state schools up to scratch.

Whatever the outcome, it is another question for prospective parents to ask schools they visit – when’s your next fee rise due?

By Danny Harrington

Co-founder of ITS Tutorial School

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