Politics of resentment triggers the intellectual pygmies of both Labour and the SNP
By Graham Grant
IN Soviet Russia, leaders’ children were sent to elite schools, and some institutions only accepted the very best and most talented pupils.
They would be dropped off at the gates in Packards and Buicks by their parents’ chauffeurs – and naturally had access to Western luxuries at home.
Hypocrisy and socialism have always gone hand in hand, of course, as we saw at the weekend when Labour backed plans to abolish private schools.
At least that would be the cumulative effect – stripping them of assets, hiking VAT and denying them charitable relief would gradually undermine the sector.
Jeremy Corbyn and his Oxford-educated communications director Seamus Milne are products of the fee-paying system which the Labour grassroots detest so viscerally.
Diane Abbott also privately educated her son, claiming that ‘West Indian mums will go to the wall for their children’; she now sheepishly insists that happened ‘many years ago’.
So perhaps the biggest problem with getting rid of private education is where all the Labour MPs and senior party figures would send their children – they might even have to use council-run schools…
In fact, parents who go private on both sides of the Border face a kind of Left-wing pincer movement, as the SNP is also planning to scrap the right of private schools to claim charitable relief on business rates.
The Scottish private sector warns this £7million tax bombshell would see fees rise, while some schools will merge or shut, and as a result thousands of children will have to be decanted to state schools, making classrooms even more crowded.
Labour VAT proposals to add 20 per cent tax to school fees could make them unaffordable for a quarter of parents, with one analysis concluding that it would be ‘reasonably likely’ that 25.4 per cent of pupils would drop out.
That could lead to up to 8,000 pupils leaving independent schools in Scotland, while integrating all those youngsters in high schools would cost councils more than £55million.
Taken together, this combined assault on fee-paying schools amounts to a campaign against parental freedom, for sure; but it’s also a massive headache for council chiefs who would have to build new schools.
Ideology and practical reality don’t always mix – a truth acknowledged by Tony Blair and his closest advisers, who decided that a crusade against private schools would be complex and counterproductive.
Certainly, if we outlawed private schools, we could no longer describe ourselves as a free society – but it’s also true that the time spent waging war on them could be better directed towards other efforts to reduce inequality.
The truly privileged are also, by definition, adept at looking after themselves, and many would doubtless send their children to boarding schools abroad; they would then stay there – or come back and get well-paid jobs.
Indeed many of the UK’s private schools play host to children from Communist China, so there is always an escape route for those who want the best, or what they perceive as the best, for their offspring, regardless of government diktat – provided they can afford it.
The idea that you can make state education more effective by destroying a better-performing system is, and always has been, baffling.
Critics of private schools often claim that their state counterparts would benefit from the injection of bright and well-heeled pupils from fee-paying institutions.
This is a bit of an insult to the pupils already at council-run schools, and it also overlooks the fact that many of those who do privately educate their children are far from well-heeled, forgoing foreign holidays to pay fees, or depending on bursaries and scholarships (which are now in jeopardy).
About 10,000 children at private schools in Scotland get financial assistance, out of a total of nearly 30,000 pupils.
The Marxist state envisaged by Mr Corbyn and his cohorts wouldn’t stop at private education, and you can bank on the demise of other bourgeois evils such as private healthcare and – taking matters to their logical conclusion – private property.
In Scotland, sections of the SNP have always been against private schools on ideological grounds, while the same is true of the Greens, the minority Nationalist government’s dependable allies.
For years, Left-wing MSPs were itching for conflict with independent education providers.
One of the first salvos against them was the launch of a quango to assess whether private schools deserved charitable status, using a number of yardsticks such as whether their fees were deemed to be excessive, or if they shared facilities with state schools.
The dismay among SNP and Labour MSPs when these schools passed the test was palpable.
For the SNP, which rashly promised to close the attainment gap – supposedly the defining mission of Nicola Sturgeon’s time in office – private schools are a convenient scapegoat.
The party can argue that all of the private money flowing into the likes of Fettes College, and Gordonstoun, makes the playing field far from equal, and the unfair tax advantages they enjoy mean state schools always have one hand tied behind their backs.
Council-run schools pay business rates, the argument runs, so why shouldn’t the private sector?
That thesis ignores the fact that 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 – while private schools are non-profit-making, with fee income ploughed into running costs.
Parents who pay private school fees also fund state education through their taxes, so in effect they will be contributing towards payment of the tax on business rates for both the private and state sectors – through increased fees and through their (rising) tax bills.
Miss Sturgeon, when she was an opposition MSP, once said the ‘role of the taxpayer should be to fund high-quality state education and not to subsidise private decisions taken by individual parents’.
But should the role of government be to place such constraints on parental choice that it no longer exists in any meaningful form?
Should its role be to wipe out centuries of academic excellence just to sate the politics of resentment that drives so many of the intellectual pygmies in both the SNP and the Labour Party?
Perhaps government should be pared back to its core duties of protecting the realm, collecting taxes (they all seem pretty keen on that) and effectively managing public institutions.
More urgently, the SNP should set about turning around the tanker of failing state education so that parents aren’t forced to splash out on homes they can’t afford in the catchment areas of the best state schools, or compelled to go private.
For the Corbynistas and for Miss Sturgeon’s followers, this is a task far beyond their capabilities.
In the meantime, we can expect more student union posturing from a hypocritical political class that wants the best for their own children – but doesn’t seem to care much about anybody else’s.
*This column appeared in the Scottish Daily Mail on September 24, 2019.