A question of charity
Wednesday, 24 April 2013

A question of charity

We take a look at how independent schools benefit the wider public

Written by Vanessa Berridge
The Independent Schools Council (ISC) won an important battle with the Charity Commission in October 2011 at a High Court tribunal. At the heart of the matter was a question of bursaries, with the Charity Commission having previously stipulated that independent schools, as educational charities, should provide a minimum number of bursaries to demonstrate their wider public benefit. The Charity Commission lost at law, and Matthew Burgess, a member of the ISC general counsel, commented: ‘The ruling liberates schools to innovate and be creative in their charitable provision.’

‘The Charity Commission was unfair to focus only on bursaries and ignore the many other things schools do,’ says Dr Timothy Hands, master at Magdalen College School. ‘But it made independent schools more aware of their role in society, which was a good thing.’

At Magdalen, the equivalent of one full-time member of staff oversees the pupils’ community service, which includes language projects involving local schools and an afternoon club run for the elderly. And, going back to the school’s medieval foundation, the annual Waynflete Studies course enables sixth formers to undertake an independent research project tutored by an academic from Magdalen College just across the bridge.

Ian Hunt, of educational consultancy Gabbitas, believes that schools should be looking at the local community as a whole. ‘They should be opening doors to subjects such as Latin to the benefit of independent and maintained-school pupils,’ he says. ‘Parents choosing independent schools are buying a culture, and an environment with discipline and structure. The more that is widened out, the better the school becomes.’

The Girls’ Day School Trust (formerly the Girls’ Public Day School Trust) has had a clear charitable ethos since its foundation in 1872. Just under four per cent of its fee income goes on bursaries, from which 1,046 families benefit, while 18.9 per cent of trust pupils receive some financial assistance. ‘Our schools have a strong feeling of community engagement,’ says Helen Fraser, the trust’s chief executive. ‘And all feel they must play their part.’

Among its 26 schools are now two academies, Birkenhead High School Academy and Belvedere Academy in Liverpool. Struggling to attract feepaying pupils, they joined the maintained sector a few years ago. According to Fraser, this decision has turned out to be a positive move both for the schools themselves and for the other independent trust schools that have been able to learn from the different teaching methods employed there.

‘They have access to all GDST activities and are still part of the GDST family,’ she says. The first nonselective cohort has just come through Belvedere, with 98 per cent of the girls achieving A* to C grades at GCSE, suggesting that the GDST ethos remains a potent force.

Several trust schools, including Sheffield, Croydon and Blackheath, are involved with the charity Shine (Support and Help in Education), which funds initiatives for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Sheffield High School has won three awards since 2010 for its community outreach and links with local maintained schools. Shine operates a Saturday programme of learning with nine local primaries, to help prepare 45 children from Year 5 for their move to secondary school. The aim is to widen their educational horizons, and to build academic confidence.

Other initiatives include Aim Higher, which encourages pupils to apply for Oxbridge. Interview practice is given, and joint trips to the universities are arranged for pupils of both Sheffield High School and the maintained schools. The project has been running for the last seven years and has resulted in a 50 per cent increase in the number of pupils reaching the interview stage, and a 30 per cent increase in offers.

Valerie Dunsford, the head at Sheffield High School, says: ‘The school is part of the city, and needs to be out there as an exemplar and breaking down barriers. And these projects build the personal skills of our own girls. It’s one of the most satisfying parts of my job’.

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