'It's only right to stop private school tax breaks'

The Scottish government plans to cut private schools' rates relief – Iet's hope it goes even further, says James McEnaney

James McEnaney

Withdrawing tax breaks for private schools is ‘absolutely right’, says James McEnaney

Having announced its intention to do so back in 2017, the Scottish government is now proceeding with plans to withdraw tax breaks from Scotland’s private schools.

Although these schools' erroneous charitable status will remain, part of the financial benefit from it will not, as these institutions will be required to pay their full non-domestic rates bill, for which they currently received an 80 per cent discount. Originally expected to cost the sector around £5 million a year, that figure has now been revised up to £7 million.

Of course, this has been met with predictable fury from all the usual suspects. When the decision was announced, private schools, some newspapers and the Scottish Conservatives – whose education spokesperson was a private school teacher – were outraged. The move was branded "backwards", "retrograde", "a blatant attack" and a sign of "the politics of envy and jealousy".

Recently, we've been told that the decision to strip private schools of an 80 per cent tax deduction is "vindictive", and that the consequence will be increased fees, reduced provision and, as if to highlight what these schools are really all about, a cut in the already meagre bursaries on offer. The rector of the High School of Dundee claimed that this move is "a clear example of a state that has no interest in education", adding: "I call on all those who have the true values of Scottish education at heart to reject this appalling Bill."

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None of this is surprising, because when you're accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.

And make no mistake, private schools are all about privilege: it's not just an unfortunate consequence of their activities; it isn't mood-music floating around in the background; it certainly isn't an accident. For private schools, social privilege isn't a by-product, it's the product.

Private schools are all about privilege

They don't offer a “better” education – in fact, when you take socioeconomics into account, they perform, at best, no better than the state schools that most regard as somehow inferior to their fee-charging counterparts. According to analysis by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, their presence does nothing to improve the overall quality of a nation’s education system.

But none of that matters because the truth is that they’re not really selling education, they're selling segregation, status and, above all, access. Private schools are not charities – they are fee-paying institutions attended overwhelmingly by the children of the social elite. Dishing out a few bursaries a year, or letting the poor kids use the playing fields once a week, doesn't change that.

I don't say this all too often, but the Scottish government is absolutely right to press ahead with this change. In fact, the only serious criticism that could be levied on this occasion is that it hasn't gone far enough.

The tax breaks enjoyed by private schools are available on the basis that the institutions offer some sort of social good, but that is a determination that can only be made in the round. It's not good enough to simply ask whether educating some young people is a good thing, you have to look at the effect on society as a whole.

On those terms, private schools should consider themselves lucky not to be facing a far more concerted campaign for their complete closure.

James McEnaney is a journalist, FE lecturer and former schoolteacher in Scotland

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