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Sun 5 December 2021

These ‘charitable’ institutions in receipt of substantial tax breaks have seen their wealth burgeon in recent years, reveal Sascha Lavin and Iain Overton

The top nine public schools in England – the so-called ‘Clarendon Schools’ – have increased their assets by 44% or almost £600 million in the past six years, analysis by the Byline Intelligence Team can reveal. 

The total consolidated assets (minus liabilities) of the nine schools rose from £1.36 billion to £1.96 billion between 2015 and 2020, the research found. All of these institutions possess charitable status.

The Clarendon Schools comprise seven boarding schools: Eton, Charterhouse, Harrow, Rugby, Shrewsbury, Westminster, Winchester; and two day schools: St Paul’s and Merchant Taylors’. Named after the 19th Century royal commission to investigate the state of leading schools in England, they are among the wealthiest educational establishments in Britain today.

Charterhouse and St Paul’s saw their asset wealth soar by 100% to £88 million and 109% to £174 million respectively in the period analysed. 

Eton College is the wealthiest of the nine. It saw its assets rise from £445 million to £611 million – a 37% increase in a time when national inflation was 13%. In 2015, Eton’s annual income was £69.9 million, rising to £78 million in 2020. 

A number of leading political and cultural figures attended Eton – including Prime Minister Boris Johnson; Leader of the House of Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg; the Chief of the General Staff Sir Mark Carleton-Smith; the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby; the outgoing editor of the Daily Mail Geordie Greig; and Supreme Court Justice Lord Leggatt.

Westminster School saw the lowest rise in total assets, at £16 million or an 11% increase, roughly in line with inflation.

The schools’ reported assets span many categories, but the rises appear to be largely in real estate and, in some cases, increases in cash in the bank.

Rugby School increased its levels of cash held in the bank from £2.5 million in 2015 to £7.7 million in 2020.

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Educational Inflation

The overall increase in fixed and current assets of the nine schools by some £598.5 million may raise concerns about a failure to channel funds into educational support – a requirement of their charitable remit.

It also raises questions about the high fees these schools now charge – fees that are out of reach to the overwhelming majority of families, including members of the middle class, instead providing access only to the super-wealthy.

The average cost of sending a child to a Clarendon School is £39,443 a year according to the latest figures available on the schools’ websites. The average UK salary was £31,461 in 2020 – leaving a shortfall of £7,982 for just one child’s fees. 

Despite these high prices, each of the Clarendon Schools justify their charitable status in their annual reports by pledging to offer education to all, regardless of a student’s socio-economic background. They do this through scholarships and other financial support. 

But, as the Byline Intelligence Team’s analysis shows, these promises ring hollow. An average of just 3.4% pupils in the schools reviewed were on full bursaries last year.

The schools are therefore potentially falling short of their charitable remit. The Charities Act defines a charity as an institution that “provides benefit to the public” and provides tax benefits to the qualifying organisations. Indeed, between 2017 and 2022, private schools will get tax rebates totalling £532 million as a result of their charitable status.

Charterhouse, for example, endeavours to make “education available to all who are sufficiently talented and, where possible, irrespective of financial circumstances”. However, only eight pupils (1%) were awarded a full bursary at the school last year. The majority of the 801 pupils’ parents footed the £41,406 a year bill required to provide their child a “true breadth of opportunity”. The school did not respond to a request for comment. 

Winchester “aims to offer the widest possible access to pupils capable from profiting from the education it offers”, yet only 19 boys (2.75%) had their £43,335 a year school fees waived last year.

Overall, just 1% of private school pupils in the UK come from the most disadvantaged households, according to the Independent Schools Council. Around 7% of pupils in England attend schools not funded by the state.


Priced Out

It is clear that a Clarendon School education is increasingly out of reach for most people in the UK. However, even the traditional pupil intake from the British upper-middle classes is now being priced out. 

Earlier this year, The Times reported that boarding school fees had increased by twice as much as inflation. Winchester College fees, for instance, jumped by 3.9% from the previous year, despite inflation standing at just 2.4%. 

Schools now need to look beyond the UK to find parents with big enough bank accounts to meet their fees. Some British schools, though not necessarily the Clarendon group, reportedly pay agents in China up to £10,000 per child to recruit overseas students. 

Elite schools have also embarked on expensive projects to build state-of-the-art facilities – a practice that may well explain the swelling of the Clarendon Schools’ fixed asset ownership. Such decisions may be a bid to attract the ultra-elite to pay ultra-high fees.

Eton’s science department, for example, was given a £20 million makeover in 2019, while the construction of an aquatics centre – boasting a 25-metre pool with a moveable floor – is currently underway. It costs parents £44,094 a year to send a son to Eton. 

St Paul’s, with annual fees at £39,966, recently completed a 10-year building project, costing £114 million. According to society magazine Tatler, the results are “fabulous”. They include an RIBA-award-winning science building, a new drama centre with “possibly the best school theatre in the UK”, and a ‘rare books room’. 

St Paul’s – the only school that responded to a request for comment – told the Byline Intelligence Team that its increased asset wealth “is down to an increase in tangible fixed assets due to the construction of new buildings to replace the Clasp buildings the school was restricted to building 50 years ago… and which have a fixed life span which is now over”. It said that “this is not a case of the school growing funds and sitting on them”.

St Paul’s ranks highest on The Sunday TimesPrivate School Pay List, with nine staff members paid salaries exceeding £100,000 in the accounting period 2019-20.

Former Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn MP said that these new findings demonstrate why the charitable status of Clarendon Schools should be abolished, in line with Labour’s 2019 Manifesto. “This policy would pay for universal free school meals for primary school kids – something which is more needed than ever, with poverty and inequality under the rise under this failed Conservative Government,” he said. 

Labour has estimated that a £1.7 billion tax bill is written-off every year for private schools across the UK. At this year’s Labour Party Conference, Keir Starmer echoed his predecessor Corbyn by pledging to end the charity status of independent schools.

This article was produced by the Byline Intelligence Team – a collaborative investigative project formed by Byline Times with The Citizens. If you would like to find out more about the Intelligence Team and how to fund its work, click on the button below.

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