Philanthropy or Forced Marriage: UK Independent Schools Offered a Choice

Yesterday, Mike Buchanan, Chair of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC), pushed back against the British government’s newest efforts to manage independent secondary schools in England, referring to Westminster’s proposals as “forced marriages” between state schools and independent schools. With charitable status and tax breaks at stake, schools are paying close attention to the government’s plans.

Leaving aside the subtext of the controversy – the desire from conservatives to reintroduce grammar schools, pressure from the left to dismantle independent schools, and barely concealed class warfare – schools can take real, tangible steps to address legitimate government concerns.

Organised, professional philanthropy can directly meet the need for offering more scholarships and bursaries to pupils who cannot afford fees – a government precondition for maintaining charitable status. But within the state sector, this is not without its own controversy as independent schools are accused of skimming off the best students. This is bound to happen, and there is every reason to reward students for doing well. After all, schools should put students first, well ahead of a school’s own pride and ranking.

The often overlooked solution that should please both state and independent schools is to focus on needs-based bursaries for students who bring more than good marks to the school. Pupils might bring musical skill, rugby talent, ethnic diversity, or maybe they are just great all-rounders – the kinds of pupils who make the school a better place. Attracting them should be easy enough, but what about funding?

Philanthropy done well meets both the school’s needs and the donors’ interests, and while there are donors who will fund bright kids from state schools, imagine extending the scholarship programme to support needs-based bursaries to make the school more interesting. The universe of potential donors expands as the diversity of pupil interests expands. The alum who loved art may support the budding artist, and the old rugger may be keen to support a young rugger who just doesn’t have the marks but who has a spark of joy and interest.

Schools with professional, organised development teams should begin to explore the new giving opportunities, not as a response to government demands, but as opportunities to make a great school even better. Donors won’t respond to the government’s “forced marriage”, but they may very well respond to a case for support that includes greater inclusion for pupils who enrich the school. This will be a hot topic for alumni, parents, and friends, so think about how to present this emerging philanthropic priority – giving to support the school’s mission, to widen participation, and to expose pupils to the diversity of skills and people in the world.

For schools without mature development teams, this is an opportunity to make the pitch to the governors, for without professional development teams and solid counsel, the government may come with a marriage offer they cannot refuse.

-Christopher Massi, Senior Consultant

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