Charitable status can open doors for the poorest pupils

13th May 2011 at 01:00
Knee-jerk reactions to the freedoms of private schools only widen the class divide

There is no doubt that the issue of independent schools having charitable status irks some people. After last week's TESS report on the efforts made by Merchiston Castle, Lomond and St Leonards schools to retain the benefits of the classification, it did not surprise me to find a typically Pavlovian response rubbishing the idea.

In my work around the world I have struggled to find a country that does not have an independent sector, apart from Cuba. What I have found, though, is that where efforts are made to marginalise independent schools, they end up being even more exclusive, with only the super-rich and the political class having access to them. Bursaries for poor kids are removed and the middle class is left with no alternative but to buy private tutoring and a place at a "good" state school by choosing house location.

The idea that this is equality of opportunity would be laughable, were it not unfunny. There are two policy developments that Scotland should take notice of that are changing the relationship between public and private provision around the world.

The first is the expansion in many developed countries of independent provision through the state sector. Countries such as the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden encourage competition of provision so that independent schools are not exclusive but inclusive due to their state funding.

The second phenomenon is the provision of low-cost private schools in some of the poorest countries, which has been written about by Professor James Tooley and his team at Newcastle. Schools that charge a dollar a day have appeared in the shanties of Colombia and India, where the state is failing to offer even a basic service.

Rather than bark instinctively against charitable status for Scotland's independent schools, why not turn the argument around and encourage our state schools to take up their own charitable status?

There is no reason why this could not be done by a creative and ambitious council, opening up the possibility of rates relief, VAT relief for school equipment and access to thousands of pounds from Scottish educational trusts.

Let's be optimistic, see what the opportunities are and set our schools free to set their own course for educational achievement. Imagine the role that former pupils like Tom Farmer and Tom Hunter can play. Imagine harnessing thousands of former pupils as fundraisers and volunteers.

Local authorities have been able to establish charitable trusts for cultural activities such as theatre companies without losing the delivery of quality services, so why not give our local schools the tools to emulate Merchiston Castle?

Brian Monteith, Political commentator, is a former MSP.

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