Private schools are Scotland’s ‘hidden export’

Private schools are Scotland’s ‘hidden export’

by Stuart Crawford
article from Monday 28, August, 2017

THE BARCLAY REPORT into non-domestic rates has recommended that private schools should be brought fully into the business rates system. Hitherto exempt because of their charitable status, the proposed change means that the independent sector could see costs rise by £5 million annually. Inevitably the schools will have to raise their fees even higher to cover the additional cost.

Private schools in Scotland have always been an easy target for assorted class warriors, lefty ideologues and others who espouse the politics of envy and anti-elitism. But some of those who criticise publicly also send their offspring to the self-same institutions of which they are so damning. They know who they are, so enough said, but look out for red faces in political and charitable circles.

What we should do, though, is have a slightly less knee-jerk reaction to the topic and ask ourselves the question; what are the benefits of the private education system as we presently understand it?

Well, first and perhaps most controversial claim of all is that the sector proves a public benefit. This seems to be based on the notion that education per se is a good thing and accordingly those who provide it are too. It is helped by the fact that many of Scotland’s private schools were founded by charitable benefactors to help educate the poor and needy. Critics might say that whilst this may have been true once it no longer applies as the schools have been hijacked by the rich for the furtherance of their own kind. Be that as it may, I don’t think anyone has argued – yet – that the provision of education is bad.

There is also little doubt that the private sector sets the benchmark for, and takes a load off, the state sector. How could it not do so? The teaching staff do flit between both sectors and are just as dedicated in each, but smaller class sizes (average 1 teacher to 8.6 pupils) and greater resources mean that the maintained sector (with a couple of well-kent exceptions) just can’t compete with the private in terms of depth and quality of education.

Edinburgh has the greatest proportion of private school pupils in Europe at 25 per cent of the senior school population compared to 4 per cent in Scotland as a whole (7 per cent in the UK). Some 30,000 children are taught in the private sector in Scotland, relieving the state sector of that burden while their parents continue to pay for state sector education as well, via their taxes. In effect they pay twice, thereby subsidising others who do not. Clearly this is their choice, but so are new cars, foreign holidays, and evenings out, many of which private school parents forego. They’re not all “rich” and many are far from it.

Perhaps the least acknowledged aspect of Scotland’s private education sector is, however, its economic contribution. Obviously they provide employment both directly and indirectly by their very existence, and in some parts of the country a significant part of the population earns it livelihood from the local independent school – think Musselburgh and Loretto.

This is dwarfed, however, by income from fees earned from abroad. Data provided by the Scottish Council of Independent Schools (SCIS) suggests that in 2015 a total of 1,274 international pupils were attending Scottish independent schools. This figure included 1,025 boarding pupils and 249 day pupils who lodge elsewhere in the community during term-time. Data provided by SCIS also suggests that in 2015 the average fee for a boarding pupil was £26,910 and the average fee for a day pupil was £9,095. By applying these fees to the pupil numbers estimated above it was estimated that in 2015 SCIS member schools generated £29.8 million in export earnings.  This “hidden export” will probably have increased to over £30 million now.

The major criticism that parents are paying for advantage for their children is no doubt true, but the myth that these schools are only for the rich should be scotched (no pun intended). The day schools in particular are relatively inexpensive and attended by many from modest backgrounds, myself included, encouraged by parents prepared to make the necessary sacrifices, with a generous allocation of scholarships and bursaries across the sector to help.

Indeed, although it is difficult to make an exact like-for-like comparison because of various different accounting practices, it is possible that the cost of educating a senior school pupil in the private day sector is roughly the same as, or possibly even less than, the equivalent in the state sector. I once put it to a leader of Edinburgh City Council that the logical outcome here would be to outsource the city’s schools to the private sector. “Yes, I agree, but over my dead body” was his ideologically inspired response.

What has all this got to do with the Barclay Report? Well, imposing business rates on Scotland’s private schools could have a number of effects. First, if it forces fees up it will make the schools less inclusive, not more so. The very wealthy will always be able to afford private education, the “just managing” won’t. Resulting possibly in fewer Scots attending made up for by more from overseas. At some tipping point these institutions will change from being Scottish schools to mere schools that happen to be in Scotland.

Second, if the advantages of charitable status are thus eroded, the temptation will be for private schools to abandon it altogether and become commercial concerns, perhaps run as limited companies with shareholders and profits to the fore. This, whilst a workable model, cannot be within the spirit and ethos of education as we currently understand it. Under charitable status private schools make no profits.

Finally, if private schools become out of reach for many then pupils will revert to the state sector, which is already creaking at the seams. The impact on class sizes and resources are difficult to predict, but I don’t think it could be considered a positive move.

The Scottish Government meddles with the independent schools sector at its peril. Of course, it could always level the playing field by removing business rates from state schools. But I’m not holding my breath.

© Stuart Crawford 2017

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