Comment: Priority should be improving council schools

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Scottish Labour leadership hopeful Kezia Dugdale is surely right in her mission to ensure “every single child in Scotland can realise their potential”.

And there is much that needs to be improved as recent figures on exam results testify.

But her remedy needs close scrutiny. She says private schools should lose their charitable status. It was wrong, she insisted, that fee-paying schools get tax breaks “given the problems our schools face just 
now”.

But is her criticism fair? And would scrapping charitable status reduce the problems in schools that she claims?

The call, of course, is not new. In fact, it’s been round the houses. The issue has been considered both by the Scottish Parliament and, at regular intervals, by the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator (OSCR) which is responsible for assessing whether independent schools merit charitable status. At the last count, OSCR concluded that the vast majority do exactly that.

So why re-visit the issue now and threaten to unpick the measures put in place to ensure that the independent sector is more accessible to pupils from all backgrounds?

The answer is that it comes as the talented and very able Ms Dugdale campaigns for the Scottish Labour leadership – and seeks support from those on the left of the party.

The reality is that many private schools run bursary schemes to ensure a greater intake from those from less well-off backgrounds. These schemes are widely supported and help 
address inequality.

Fee-paying schools also save the council’s money by educating pupils who would otherwise enrol in the state sector. Indeed, some 21 per cent of children in Edinburgh go to fee-paying establishments. It is a fair assumption that with the curtailment of bursary schemes some of those would switch to the state sector – and with accompanying pressure on tight resources.

The real priority is – as it historically always has been – to work on improving the council-run schools. Here private schools often provide an exemplar in standards of teaching and wider curriculum activities that many in the state sector would wish to emulate.

If we discourage this, all would be losers.