It’s a war in our classrooms – and state pupils may be losers.
By Graham Grant
BACK in the late 1970s, the BBC sitcom Citizen Smith mocked a Marxist ‘revolutionary’ played by Robert Lindsay.
‘Wolfie’ Smith was an admirer of Che Guevara and leader of the Tooting Popular Front – a gaggle of his Left-wing pals.
Yet for all his supposed idealism, Wolfie was really a lazy, jobless slacker who was highly unlikely to topple the government.
The kind of politics the character championed have gained some credibility since the show ended in 1980 – and suddenly the distinctive whiff of class war hangs heavy in the air again.
Private schools in Scotland are to be stripped of the right to claim business rates relief, to which they are entitled as part of their charitable status, leading to an estimated £5million bombshell for the sector.
As a result of the move, bursaries for less well-off parents and scholarships are at risk, and fees could soar.
On Friday, in the aftermath of the SNP’s tax-hiking Budget, the party’s communications boss, Fergus Mutch, issued a tweet poking fun at Scotland’s top private schools.
Commenting on the six-figure rates bill they now face, he wrote: ‘Oh my heart bleeds for the accounts department at Fettes College.
‘Meeting a “six-figure bill” – the equivalent of three pupils’ boarding fees for the year at £33,480. Really hard done by.’
Urban guerrilla Wolfie and his cronies would have been proud – no longer objects of ridicule, class warriors are in a position of strength in the Commons, and apparently in government at Holyrood.
Of course, it’s all about ironing out an inconvenient anomaly: council-run schools pay business rates, so why shouldn’t their elitist private counterparts do the same? Then the cash could be ploughed into the state sector.
Except it’s not as a simple as that, because the taxpayer picks up the bill for state schools’ rates relief – it’s not as if a teacher has to be fired to pay for it.
The mask took all of a couple of days to slip: on Friday, Green MSP Ross Greer scoffed at the idea that the loss of a ‘few bursaries’ contradicted the allegedly ‘progressive’ credentials of the SNP’s Budget.
Asked on Twitter if the end of fee-paying schools’ eligibility for business rates relief was intended to resolve an anomaly, or was ideological, Mr Greer said it was about ‘both’.
He said it was aimed at ‘ending an anomaly where private schools are financially privileged over state schools, which is doubly wrong given that they increase inequality rather than close the gap’.
The rise of Jeremy Corbyn has helped to validate prejudice of this kind (the irony is that Mr Corbyn, like many other socialists, was himself privately educated).
Having given up hope on another independence referendum, for the foreseeable future anyway, the SNP believes the best electoral strategy is ‘Corbyn-lite’.
But there are multiple problems with the latest attack on private education by the SNP and its Green allies.
One of the biggest is the simple fact that families forced to withdraw children from private schools will have to send them instead to the creaking state sector, where teacher shortages are acute.
This carries a cost to the taxpayer at a time when it’s estimated that 500 new classrooms will have to be built in Scotland by 2020 – or around 15 secondary schools – because of a projected 6 per cent rise in pupil numbers.
For many years, the Left in Scotland has been itching for this fight.
In fact, the current clash is something of a replay of a row more than a decade ago which resulted in the creation of the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator (OSCR).
Private schools have to submit to the OSCR’s ‘public benefit’ test to prove that they are worthy of charitable status.
For example, they have to show that they share facilities with the state sector, as many private schools do (the costs of which are borne by parents of pupils at fee-paying schools, who are also, let’s not forget, taxpayers).
As an opposition MSP back in 2003, Fiona Hyslop, later SNP Education Minister, said: ‘I don’t think they [private schools] should have tax relief.’
Her comments were backed at the time by Nicola Sturgeon, also an opposition MSP, who said: ‘The role of the taxpayer should be to fund high-quality state education and not to subsidise private decisions taken by individual parents.’
Nationalist MSP Christine Grahame warned in 2007: ‘If we get into a situation in future where schools such as Gordonstoun are allowed to keep their charitable status, I think we need to look again at the legislation.’
Her intervention came at a time when the OSCR tests were getting under way; the disappointment was palpable among the Left when, one by one, private schools passed with flying colours.
Nonetheless the launch of the OSCR in 2006 appeared to cauterise this bitter debate for the time being – and in any event, the SNP had other preoccupations.
Stoking class war division was secondary to the more important business of constitutional agitation.
Succour from Mr Greer and his Green colleagues has ensured that the issue is firmly back on the agenda, and the Left is celebrating: another capitalist evil has been vanquished.
Well, not really, if you look at fee-paying George Heriot’s School in Edinburgh, established in the 17th century as a charity for the children of widows.
Its remit has extended since then, and it now spends £800,000 a year on bursaries which are paid in full.
If such bursaries and scholarships decline, private schools will become more exclusive, so the SNP’s attempt to make the system fairer may result in greater social injustice.
George Heriot’s is determined to continue its charitable work, but it is easy to see why the heads of some private schools will think twice about complying with the OSCR’s public benefit tests in future.
Losing charitable status entirely would be unfair and deeply sad, but may be a small price for independent schools to pay if it allows them to continue operating, as businesses and not charities.
About 10,000 children at private schools in Scotland get financial assistance of some kind (a little more than the ‘few’ Mr Greer suggested), out of a total of nearly 30,000 pupils.
Fee income goes towards the running of private schools, which are non-profit-making.
The OSCR, which has failed so abysmally to crack down on runaway executive pay in the wider charity sector, would have much less to do if it wasn’t harassing private schools.
We revealed earlier this year that the quango’s boss, David Robb, sent his own daughters to, er, George Heriot’s.
As for the SNP, it has made a dreadful hash of state school reform, and the assault on private education, with its excellent record on exam passes, is petty, spiteful and entirely political.
Power to the people, as Wolfie would say – the class war is back on, and the Left is winning.
At least until state school classrooms can no longer take the strain…