UK private schools defend their decision against accepting race-based scholarship. Source: Shutterstock

Two private schools in the UK made headlines recently when they turned down philanthropist Sir Bryan Thwaites’s £1m (US$1.32m) scholarship donation for white boys from impoverished families.

Dulwich College and Winchester College reportedly feared that it would break equality laws.

According to The Times, Thwaites, 96, attended both schools on scholarships. He had wanted white British boys from disadvantaged homes to benefit because studies showed they did worse at school than almost every other ethnic group. 

British musician Stormzy is funding British black students to study at the University of Cambridge under the Stormzy Scholarship. The year 2019 marks the scholarship’s second year of running.

Meanwhile, last year, American tech entrepreneur Arlan Hamilton set up a scholarship to help black African or Caribbean students from disadvantaged backgrounds to study at the University of Oxford.

Thwaites reportedly argued: “If Cambridge University can accept a much larger donation in support of black students, why can’t I do the same for underprivileged white British? Winchester said it would harm its reputation by accepting my bequest, but in my opinion, it would gain enormously by being seen to address what is the severe national problem of the underperforming white cohort in schools.”

The Times notes that under the Equality Act, positive discrimination, where someone is given preferential treatment because they have a specific characteristic, is generally unlawful. They note that “positive action” is permitted for efforts aimed at encouraging someone to overcome a disadvantage attributed to their race or other protected characteristic.

A spokesman for Winchester College was quoted saying: “Acceptance of a bequest of this nature would neither be in the interests of the school as a charity nor the interests of those it aims to support through its work. Notwithstanding legal exceptions to the relevant legislation, the school does not see how discrimination on grounds of a boy’s colour could ever be compatible with its values.”

Meanwhile, a spokesman for Dulwich College reportedly said: “The community at Dulwich is proudly diverse, both socio-economically and ethnically, reflecting our location. Bursaries are an engine of social mobility and they should be available to all who pass our entrance examinations, irrespective of their background.”

Schools condemned for their decision

Trevor Phillips, former chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, slammed the decision of both schools for turning down the bursary.

Writing in The Daily Mail, he said: “Sir Bryan’s wish to promote social mobility through a number of scholarships is wholly justified. Nor is there anything unorthodox about wanting to provide financial backing to pupils from certain ethnic groups which face disadvantages in the system. 

“After all, the rap star Stormzy has established a number of scholarships exclusively for black students at Cambridge University. Other charities have done the same.”

He added: “Sir Bryan’s proposal was certainly not illegal under current equality legislation. As one of the authors of the 2010 Equality Act in my then role as head of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, I can state categorically that in circumstances where a racial group suffering disadvantage is white, then there is no bar on doing for them exactly what we would do for black and ethnic minority groups.”

Phillips said the Equality Act is not the judicial preserve of people of colour, but a measure that aims to bring fairness for all.

Needs-based versus race-based scholarships

Were both schools right in turning down the bursary? Are race-based scholarships a form of affirmative action or a sign of racism?

Twitter users voiced mixed reactions. 

One user said: “Right decision, wrong reasons. It’s not unlawful to set up a fund to address systemic disadvantage on grounds of race but white working class boys are disadvantaged by class not b/c [because] they are white.”

Another user opined: “Is equality gone mad. Surly [surely] helping any fellow human being is courageous” while another said: “Ok for Stormzy to set up scholarships for black boys but doing same for poor white boys is racist? How come? Poor white boys most deprived group educationally”. 

“Most people are completely missing the point over the #OKtobeWhite private schools donation. It is private schools that are the problem, they need to be abolished,” said another user.

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