Cultural Theory and the Public Benefit Requirement

English: Fettes College One of the private sch...
Fettes College One of the private schools in Edinburgh. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

WB of Down at Third Man asked for a Cultural Theory perspective on the concept of ‘public benefit’ as it applies to the charitable working of private schools in the UK.

Would you be willing and able to give me your view on how the four cultures would perceive ‘public benefit’ say with regard to schools. I am thinking about the justification in the UK for independent schools having charitable status provided they prove that they provide a public benefit.

A bit of background is in order here. In Britain, private schools are mainly set up as charities, which means they pay less tax than they otherwise would. Under charity law there has to be a charitable purpose, which in this case is education. But there also has to be a public benefit. Until recently this has not been defined, so the actual public benefit of public schools couldn’t easily be scrutinized. In the past few years, though, the Charity Commission has become more interested in defining exactly what ‘public benefit’ might involve.

In particular it has been suggested that an organisation which offers little or nothing to the poor might not actually be providing a public benefit. This could place private schools in some difficulty. Their financial viability is organised around the assumption that they won’t be paying much tax, even though, clearly, the main benefit goes to the children of parents who can afford to pay the fees, not to the children of parents who can’t afford it. These schools have been content to offer a few scholarships and bursaries, open their sports facilities to the wider community on occasion and regard this as ‘public benefit’ demonstrated. The Charity Commission, led by Labour Party member Suzi Leather, sought to make private schools demonstrate public benefit more clearly but its approach was modified by a recent  legal challenge by the Independent Schools Council with the court decision that it is up to the schools themselves to determine how to demonstrate public benefit.

Now there is a public consultation on how the Charity Commission should represent the guidance on public benefit and you can make a submission if you feel so moved. This has all been very controversial and the outgoing head of the Charity Commission appears to be quite annoyed at the situation.

Enough of the background. What does this look like from the perspective of Cultural Theory?

The underlying context is clearly Hierarchical: we are talking about the question of who pays taxes and who doesn’t, with an added consideration of what constitutes the duty of the wider society to ‘the poor’. The previous longstanding settlement has the hallmarks of a clumsy solution, nominally Egalitarian, but dominated by a Hierarchical, procedural rationality: government demands a public benefit, but makes no requirement as to what that benefit might be. The status quo doesn’t just suit the Hierarchical worldview – it is also favoured by Individualism. In some respects, private schools are the quintessential Individualist institution. They promote personal choice (I’ll pay for whatever education I want my children to have, and not be forced into the one size fits all straitjacket of public education, thank you. Like my preferred education sector, I am ‘independent’). They also promote personal success, in the shape of a strong commitment to inequality of outcome.

 “however good state schools become, private schools’ well-understood job is to stay a step ahead and deliver economic and social advantage.” Will Hutton, The Guardian

In Individualist terms, tax breaks for such institutions are only right and just, then.

For the Fatalist worldview, the mere existence of private schools is confirmation of the harsh and unchangeable reality of life, as is their ability to manipulate the taxation system:

‘ It’s the same the whole world over, It’s the poor what gets the blame,
It’s the rich what gets the pleasure, Isn’t it a blooming shame?’
(Billy Bennett, She was poor but she was honest)

A clumsy solution is typically one in which all four rationalities are taken account of and the four worldviews identified by Cultural Theory at least have something to take home. No-one gets everything, but everyone gets a bit. Now, though, this clumsy solution is under attack by the Egalitarian worldview. Egalitarian impulses are recognising that it’s not enough to have procedural ‘public benefit’, there is also a requirement, for Egalitarianism at least, for substantive ‘public benefit’. This rationality is expressing the view that organisations which primarily benefit the offspring of the wealthy and which notoriously perpetuate social inequality can hardly be considered ‘charitable’ and in particular there is no special reason to exempt them from tax. The old clumsy solution is, for the time being, dead.

The Charity Commission, and by extension the nation, now faces the difficult task of re-establishing a new solution, which may or may not turn out to be a clumsy one. I’ve previously written:

the constrained pluralism implicit in Grid-Group cultural theory provides an argument for a continued commitment on the part of policy makers to a plurality of educational systems in a constantly renegotiated regime of co-existence, rather than just one system, on the one hand, or an entirely unmanageable ‘infinite variety’, on the other.

Now read: Can education reform cope with competing visions of fairness?

and also: Why aren’t we all egalitarians?

and even: Tempting Fate in Schools

For much more sophisticated case studies of applied Cultural Theory, see:
Marco Verweij (2011) Clumsy Solutions for a Wicked World. Palgrave.

For more on the economics of redistribution see Samuel Bowles’s new book, The New Economics of Inequality and Redistribution (2012) Cambridge University Press.

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