Share knowledge, not stereotypes, about class

2nd February 2018 at 00:00
Tired assumptions about the independent sector needlessly cloud the debate over business rates

James McEnaney clearly had a good winter break. His piece on independent schools and business rates (“Time to smash tax breaks for our bastions of inequality”, Tes Scotland, 12 January) was as long on righteous anger and schadenfreude as it was short on perspective and precision. The independent sector has never doubted the strength of feeling its very existence arouses; the debate is almost as old as some of the schools themselves. What distinguished this response to the Barclay Review – and the Scottish government’s selective acceptance of it – were the lofty but tired assumptions about the sector and the families in it.

Scotland has rightly put education front and centre of public policy, balancing high ambitions with limited resources. Given the scale of challenges ahead – from teacher numbers to subject breadth, from leaver destinations to mental health, and from physical wellbeing to a technology revolution – one might have thought that reaching out to all areas of education would be essential.

The deputy first minister and education secretary John Swinney said in 2017:

“I am clear the independent sector has a role to play in the education system in Scotland…Everyone involved in the education of our young people, no matter the setting, wants to do the best for each and every child in our care and stewardship…To address this shared endeavour, I am interested in exploring with the independent sector how we can foster an environment and atmosphere of collaboration to ensure that we are learning as much and participating in as much as we can together.”

In place of this, McEnaney’s response was to offer up old chestnuts about “privilege”, “insidious social networks”, separating “precious offspring from the masses”, and “reluctantly doling out a few bursaries”.

Anyone still hanging on these terms has clearly not stopped to think just how large and diverse a group of 30,000 pupils and their families is in Scotland – the equivalent pupil numbers to all of Highland Council. The assumptions and stereotypes that such comments reveal about the achievements of 95 per cent of children educated by local authorities are as lazy and pernicious as they are for the remaining 5 per cent.

No one is more successful in portraying autonomous, independent schools as isolated and detached than those critics who pretend they wish it was otherwise. Equally, any company or “network” daft enough to favour a young person simply on where they went to school does not deserve to stay in business. For most, though clearly not all, Tom Brown’s School Days or Bash Street versus Posh Street are long gone.

Community benefit

The sector’s view of the Barclay Review was that it raised issues the Scottish Parliament had already worked long and hard to tackle. Anyone in any doubt about the views of MSPs at the time would do well to revisit the official reports of the passage of the Charities Bill in 2005. Successive members welcomed the fact that, for the first time, independent schools would have their ability to provide true community benefit assessed and questioned by the new charity regulator, OSCR.

History proves that the charity test produced results, even without post-legislative scrutiny. Schools worked over more than a decade to move existing bursaries and scholarships to full means-testing and launch fundraising programmes to supplement that. Some did not pass the test the first time around.

McEnaney makes the predictable assumption that all of this was reluctant “doling out”. He should try speaking to any of the schools about how reluctant they actually are – or to the thousands of families who apply for fee-assisted entry, or look again at OSCR’s detailed report into each school (bit.ly/OSCRschools).

Means-tested fee assistance has more than tripled since the OSCR test was implemented. One in three young people in independent schools now receives bursary support. Since 2006, £200 million in fee assistance has been means-tested and was not, or did not exist, before the charity test.

McEnaney’s piece suggested that a small school such as Clifton Hall was up to no good because only three pupils were eligible for 100 per cent bursaries. He conveniently neglected to continue that – after salaries, pensions, utilities and other costs – more than £300,000 was offered in means-tested assistance and a further £270,000 on non-tested assistance.

Add to this the provision of specific subject teaching, or arts, sport or music where gaps exist elsewhere. Ask community groups, local teams and the like if they would rather pay commercial rates for facilities than the current arrangements, as not-for-profit schools’ budgets are thrown into question.

The sector’s argument against Barclay was not that the government had no right to implement it, but that it flew in the face of what had been achieved, while the remaining 24,300 charities were untouched – including universities. Anyone can find 50 or more charities on OSCR’s register that they oppose on personal philosophical or political grounds, but singling out one group for special treatment suggests a motivation other than clarity in business taxation.

Independent schools contribute £250 million to the public exchequer each year and support around 10,500 jobs. The argument that state schools pay 100 per cent rates while independent schools only pay 20 per cent ignores the fact that schools and their nominal rates bills are funded entirely through general taxation. No state school will ever have to revisit its operational budget because rates are being increased five-fold in two years’ time. Crucially, £5 million will have a negligible impact in Scottish education, but a substantial one on a successful sector.

The most regrettable aspect of the divisive language of this proxy debate on business rates is that it makes barriers to collaboration and partnership all the harder to surpass. There are experiences and resources to be shared on both sides of school education, and they are about a lot more than exam results.

No one ever asks what – if any – difference is made by a longer school day, all-through models with less disruptive transition, half a dozen hours of team or individual exercise each week, parental contracts, or substantial support for learning resource. Scotland’s young people – and their families – deserve a more honest debate than this.

John Edward is director of SCIS, the Scottish Council of Independent Schools

 

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