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"Independent education supports Scottish local economies and state schools" comment piece in The Sunday Times by Colin Donald

Head of Kilgraston, Mrs Dorothy MacGinty, quoted in Sunday Times piece about independent education in Scotland


July 15 2018, The Sunday Times
Independent education supports Scottish local economies and state schools
by Colin Donald

A letter to parents from the chairman of governors on Tuesday confirmed that Beaconhurst School in Bridge of Allan, a good school and an important local employer for 100 years, has “reluctantly” taken PwC’s advice to enter administration.

The closure, traumatic for pupils and their families and for the 60-plus staff, highlights the fragility of a sector whose contribution to Scotland’s economy, to curricular support for local state schools, to international connectivity, to Scotland’s social capital and to our faltering attainment statistics, are all easily demonstrable.

This contribution has not stopped Scottish officialdom and compliant bodies like the SVCO from seeking to undermine independent schooling, although plenty of their personnel use it, for good reasons.

A significant part of the Scottish Government’s support base considers spending on education – as distinct from say, four-by-fours or Florida holidays – to be ideologically undesirable, or even “obscene”, as one Scottish Parliament petitioner put it.

This ill-will was made official last August in the guise of the Barclay Review of non-domestic tax rates, which recommended that independent schools should no longer be eligible for an 80% charitable rates discount, despite their conforming to the letter and spirit of what OSCR considers charitable purposes entail.

The Review’s only justification for proposing a five-fold increase in schools’ rates bill was a facile comparison with the rates “paid” by state schools under their control, a wholly notional figure that makes no difference to how local authority heads adminster their schools.

Barclay’s unsubstantiated assertion that tax breaks for fee-paying schools are “unfair” is suspiciously ideological for a review led by an ex-RBS banker. Especially so as the increased extractions, although burdensome to hard-pressed schools, are mere rounding errors within the Scottish budget.

Documents released under FoI in January suggest that the proposal, currently “under consultation”, was shoehorned into the “independent” Review against the advice of the Scottish Government’s own legal experts, who cautioned that it amounted to an inequitable  “2-tier system for charities” that was “difficult to justify”.

In an email dated 8 June, 2017 one official from the Charity Law and Volunteering team advised: “It is worth bearing in mind that independent schools have already been the subject of s a specific thematic review by OSCR and have either (re-met) the charity test or have made the adjustments required to allow them to do so. In other words their charitable status has already been the subject of greater scrutiny than that of other charities. Removing rates relief would mean that, despite this we were creating a class of charities who receive less favourable treatment than others.”

However much independent schools clearly feature in the demonology of some Scottish politicians, even they must face the reality that there are pockets of Scotland where their contribution to local economies would be hard to replace were more schools to follow Beaconhurst into history.

Dorothy MacGinty, headmistress at Kilgraston School near Perth, is one of those increasingly prepared to challenge what she sees as an officially-endorsed “threat” to independent schools and to draw attention to its, presumably unintended, “serious implications” for local economies. She has highlighted the fact that Perth & Kinross Council area’s 10 independent boarding and day schools one of the biggest direct and independent employers and visitor attractors, but schools like Kilgraston provide significant support, in terms of the teaching of music, art, drama and other subjects to local state schools, also loan of facilities, all of which, along with the provision of career-essential exam subjects lacking at the higher end of the state system. All of this is threatened by the political whim of the Barclay Review. 

Along with other Perthshire schools, Kilgraston is commissioning new research this autumn to update previous research by Abertay University that detailed the “extreme importance” of the sector and its 850 jobs, especially to rural areas where schools generated nearly a quarter of all employment.

While hiding behind Barclay, the Scottish Government also prepared to shuffle responsibility for the sector’s health to local government. A leaked letter from Derek Mackay to John Swinney, writing in May on behalf of an anxious school in his constituency, suggests that the school apply to their hard-pressed local council to reduce business rates under the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act, 2015.

It is odd, but characteristic, that this “not my problem, pal” solution should only be proposed in private correspondence rather than public debate, but no odder than Scottish ministers’ failure to engage in any substantive way with the sector itself before attacking it.

Active and passive aggression towards the Scottish independent school sector seems to fit the immediate needs of political messaging, but its supporters may find it detracts from the interim economy-boosting goal on which their ultimate goal depends.

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