I’ll say this for Scottish politics: it isn’t short of drama.
Just before Christmas, the Scottish government’s finance secretary, Derek Mackay, stood before the chamber in Holyrood and delivered his budget proposals for the coming year. It’s safe to say that some of his decisions have caused quite a stir.
The changes to income tax and potential cuts in local authority funding generated plenty of well-deserved headlines – although the latter still feels under-analysed – but there was another decision that provoked a flurry of reaction: the decision to strip private schools of millions of pounds of tax breaks.
Though their anomalous charitable status will remain, the 80 per cent discount on business rates will go. This long-overdue change was recommended as part of the recent Barclay Review of Business Rates, and it is expected to generate around £5 million.
The response from some quarters has been predictably – and hilariously – hysterical. The Scottish Council of Independent Schools (SCIS) described the move as “backward step”. The Tories called it a “blatant attack”. No doubt the Hometown Foundation, which recently announced plans to open so-called “budget private schools” through its new Schools’ Educational Trust, was also crying into its poorly-written business plans.
The newspapers got in on the act, too. A leader column in The Scotsman, admittedly speaking to its Edinburgh-based audience, echoed SCIS in calling the move a “retrograde step” and describing it as a sign of “the politics of envy and jealousy”. The Daily Telegraph went even further, running an article purporting to focus on the concerns of experts but which only quoted Tory MSP Liz Smith – a former private school teacher who was, until recently, on the governing board of a private school – and John Edward, whose position as director of SCIS essentially makes him the sector’s chief lobbyist. It was, as I tweeted at the time, pretty desperate stuff.
A few days later they continued along the same lines, highlighting the claims of Rod Grant, headmaster at Edinburgh’s Clifton Hall School, who insisted that schools like his are not, in fact, elitist – quite a claim when, as the Sunday Herald’s Paul Hutcheon quickly pointed out, just three of their students in 2015-16 (less than 1 per cent of the school roll) were in receipt of a full bursary – as opposed to bursaries that cover part of a pupil’s school fees – and when their annual fees stand at roughly half of the Scottish median income.
It all left me wondering whether private schools’ most ardent defenders actually hear themselves when they speak or if they just sort of drift in and out instead. Of course, when you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression. And make no mistake: private schools are all about privilege.
Sure, the exam results are always good – but state schools with a similarly advantaged socioeconomic mix as private schools tend to match the performance of fee-paying institutions (and often manage to do so with significantly fewer resources). There is also, according to a 2011 paper by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) entitled Private Schools: who benefits?, “no evidence to suggest that private schools help to raise the performance of the system as a whole.”
So although they would have you believe that what they offer is the highest quality education, the truth is that private schools sell a quite different product, and that is the ability for wealthy customers to segregate their precious offspring from the masses, thus concentrating their already considerable advantages. As a consequence, private schools are also a highly effective means of protecting the sort of insidious social networks that lead to privately educated individuals being wildly over-represented in key areas of power, such as politics or the judiciary. The notion that the state should endorse any of this, let alone subsidise it, is simply nonsense.
Reluctantly doling out a few bursaries or offering a state school the use of a playing field doesn’t change any of this; that the sector is now petulantly threatening to reduce or withdraw such activity, and even claiming that it may be “forced” to do so, demonstrates just how hollow its commitment to “widening access” has always been.
Over the past couple of years, I have been a relatively prominent critic of SNP education policy, and with good reason: it remains the case that first minister Nicola Sturgeon has done significant harm to Scottish education by staking her reputation on claims that it can be rescued within the convenient time frame of an electoral cycle, and aspects of her government’s policy-making process have been nothing short of outrageous.
That said, I also believe in giving credit where it is due and, in this case, Derek Mackay’s decision was, without doubt, the right one.
There is simply no convincing justification for the state to hand financial sweeteners to institutions that exist to maintain social inequality. Asking it to pay proper taxes on its premises is not an ideological attack on the private sector, nor is it part of a campaign to shut it down – anyone who thinks the SNP radical enough for either clearly hasn’t been paying much attention.
It is merely the long-delayed – and frustratingly rare – application of a little bit of common sense.
James McEnaney is a journalist, FE lecturer and former secondary teacher