John McLellan: Dugdale wrong on private schools

Kezia Dugdale. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
Kezia Dugdale. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
Have your say

IN the post-election turmoil gripping the Labour Party, the reaction to the crisis north and south of the Border couldn’t be more different.

In the south the battle is between candidates, Jeremy Corbyn apart, who accept the answer to crushing defeat is not to lurch further leftward than Ed Miliband’s rejected programme.

Here, struggling to comprehend a wipe-out in its heartlands at the hands of an increasingly left-wing SNP, Scottish Labour is being drawn towards out-lefting the Nationalists.

So leadership candidate, and almost certainly the eventual winner, Kezia Dugdale has scratched the Left’s itching sore of private schools and their charitable status.

At least the Lothians MSP had the sense not to blame the parents of the 24 per cent of Edinburgh pupils who are privately educated, the vast majority of whom do not have the 
fabulous wealth of Old Etonian caricature. Sure, some of them have a little place in the East Neuk and a week in Chamonix is de rigeur at Easter, but there are plenty of taxi drivers and small traders for whom every penny counts to make sure their kids get the best start possible.

Here I should declare an interest. I was privately educated, my father drove a taxi and we sent our kids to Watson’s. And very happy all three have been.

Without getting into the pros and cons of private education, the point Kezia Dugdale misses is that the removal of charitable status will do nothing, absolutely nothing, to achieve her stated aim of tackling educational inequality. On average, the effect would be to increase fees by about £500 a year, nowhere near enough to make the parents of the 10,000 pupils now attending Edinburgh private schools think twice. A few might, but not many. If you are already committed to paying £10,500 a year, then £11,000 isn’t going to make much difference and the same goes for prospective parents.

Like the many tax impositions on the middle classes, they would just deal with it. In 2013 George Osborne axed child benefit for all families with one parent earning more than £44,000, a substantial number of private school families, but nothing happened even though for such families with two kids it was an instant loss of £1800. School rolls didn’t fall, any more than when Edinburgh’s financial services industry was being torn to shreds. For those whose money became too tight in the wake of the crash, the schools stepped in and assistance was quietly arranged.

Watson’s is selling its painting by Scottish Colourist Cadell to boost the fund for fees of less well-off families. At Heriot’s, a similar fund means fees are waived if a family’s main breadwinner dies. So if providing education on a not-for profit basis doesn’t count as a charity then what does?

Kezia Dugdale was only 16 when Labour ended the old assisted places scheme in 1997 and wasn’t born when Scottish Labour councils abolished state selective schools in the 70s.

Neither did much harm to the sector – if anything the end of state selective schooling strengthened it – but both made good schools less accessible to kids from poorer backgrounds and actually set back the cause of equality and social mobility.

And the £15 million a year in extra rates Scottish private schools would pay would just be sucked up by government budgets or at best an education establishment resistant to real institutional change.

There is no Scottish Labour (or Scottish Government, for that matter) version of the London Challenge which has seen dramatic improvements. At its heart is the academies programme and recognition that allowing new education providers creates a greater pressure for positive change in all schools. It also promotes a greater culture of accountability in which higher ambition for the children is key.

In Finland, which regularly tops world education league tables, well-paid teachers have more freedom, there is selectivity in the final high school years and a split between academic and vocational institutions. The tiny Finnish private sector has become largely irrelevant.

So go ahead, Kezia, in the unlikely event that Scottish Labour is anywhere near power after next May by all means withdraw charitable status. Private schools will cope.

We parents will certainly not miss the chippy whining from people who have yet to grasp that the way to tackle educational inequality is to improve all state-run schools so private schooling becomes a quaint anomaly.