On Saturday August 15, I fully expect Kezia Dugdale to be elected leader of the Scottish Labour Party.
As an SNP member I could not be more delighted that the Lothians list MSP is warm favourite. She will bring a refreshingly untutored voice to Scottish politics, and no one can doubt her commitment to the cause of Labour and the Union.
She will also be a huge boon to the SNP, and destroy Labour’s chances of ever winning a seat in Edinburgh again, judging by her first major policy pronouncement.
Of all the issues she could have highlighted, Dugdale had to go and choose a bandwagon that nobody, but nobody, is climbing aboard. In calling for an end to charitable status for independent schools, Dugdale plunged into a debate and an issue about which she clearly has not the least clue. Since more than a quarter of Edinburgh’s school pupils are educated at independent schools – Dugdale couldn’t even get that right, quoting the figure as 24 per cent and 21 per cent at different times – and many thousands of people across Scotland work for them, she has immediately put a lot of people’s backs up for the sake of cheap headlines.
The fact is that at no time – and I double checked this – even when she was Shadow spokesperson on Education at Holyrood, did Dugdale ever meet with the Scottish Council of Independent Schools (SCIS) which represents 70 such schools across Scotland. SCIS asked for meetings and in almost two years in office, she couldn’t find the time. So much for listening to every side of an argument.
Had she bothered to check she would have found that Scotland’s independent schools have had to comply with the most rigorous examination of charitable status ever carried out on schools anywhere in the world.
A simple check would have seen that “charitable status” saves independent schools less than £5 million per year, mostly in exemption from rates. Yet an independent report into the schools suggests they make an annual contribution to the Exchequer of at least £250m, as well as allowing hundreds of thousands of hours of public use of their sports facilities.
The parents on low incomes of more than 600 pupils at independent schools in Scotland pay no fees at all. That’s the equivalent of a small secondary school which the taxpayer would then have to fund.
Losing charitable status will make no difference to the schools but will actually save them millions because they won’t have to pay out bursaries or open their facilities.
Dugdale, pictured, then compounded her folly with these weasel words: “I am not against private schools.” I am sorry, but the tone of her remarks about elitism suggests she is precisely that. A future debate, Kezia?
Furthermore, this is just not an issue for the vast majority of Scottish parents – most would say ‘I’d send my kids to private school if I had the money’.
Had Dugdale said “extend charitable status to state schools”, I would have been praising her today.
Instead, she has made herself look stupid and divisive over a non-issue.
On behalf of the SNP I say welcome to your new job, and keep up the good work on our behalf.