Do the charitable thing – end private schools' tax breaks
Kevin McKenna The Observer, Sunday 10 February 2013
The SNP have a moral duty to tackle the iniquity at the heart of the education system
A dazzling new entry is about to take its place in the long and glorious canon of spurious foreign junkets made by Scottish politicians. Our transport minister, Keith Brown, plans to visit Holland to discover why loads of its citizens use bikes to get around the place. Ever mindful of my responsibility to the public purse, I'm happy to save the minister an easyJet fare. The reason why lots more Dutch people get on their bikes, Mr Brown, is because Holland has no hills, whereas Scotland is built on them.
Each year since the SNP came to power, their admirable commitment to social justice has been accompanied by lots of wee environmental bells and whistles: a few million here for bendy buses; a couple of million there for cycle routes. I suppose these things are important because if we do become independent in 2014 it would be good to have the garden looking at its best. They're not as remotely important, though, as matters of social justice and that's where the SNP must focus all their efforts if they are to bridge the independence credibility gap.
Yet almost six years have passed since the SNP first won power in Scotland and still they continue to scorn their biggest and easiest opportunity to make Scotland a fairer country. All they have to do is move to end the charitable status of public schools, these elitist bastions of privilege in our midst. For there is no greater tool of social engineering and no greater obstacle to social mobility. Remove their charitable status, which allows them to avoid tens of millions of pounds of non-domestic rates, then sit back and watch them disappear one by one. Then their pupils can learn what it's like to take their chances like everyone else and make something of their lives without artificial stimulants.
Certainly, successive education ministers have looked at ending this iniquitous device that ensures we, the idiot taxpayers, maintain all our little Sebastians and Julias in the manner to which they are accustomed. Broadly speaking, this means being given unfair advantages and access to a lifestyle and opportunities that are beyond the reach of the majority of our children. The supporters of these schools insist that there is an important issue about choice for the tiny elite of parents who can afford their prohibitive fees.
It's not choice, though, when such a privileged education is denied to more than 90% of our children for reasons beyond their control. As such, it merely supports an ancient social and cultural structure designed to ensure that power, wealth and influence will remain with an entitled and undeserving elite. It is woven into the fabric of Scotland's history and there are few signs that it will end in the near future.
Last week, the results of a study commissioned by the Jimmy Reid Foundation revealed that our political class – those who both make and influence policy decisions – are gathered, to an overwhelmingly degree, from among Scotland's most affluent people. People who come from lower-income backgrounds are virtually excluded from the system. I suspect that a study into the educational backgrounds of our judges and top civil servants would reveal a similar tale of collective privilege.
It wouldn't be difficult to begin dismantling Scotland's network of private schools. The Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator has set these schools a test that is designed to measure the benefits they provide to the unwashed public loitering outside their walls. If they don't meet the test, these schools stand to lose tens of millions of pounds of state subsidies. Even now, dozens of Scotland's schools, which charge up to £30,000 a year, are scrabbling around their ledgers trying to find ways of increasing the numbers of pupils to whom they grant some worthless parcel of assistance. It is a tiresome Punch and Judy exercise that insults the intelligence of all who participate.
The sole purpose of Scotland's fee-paying schools is to charge as much money as people are willing to pay to ensure that they remain as elitist and exclusive as the Queen of Sheba's suspender belt. Assisting a few worthy plebs and throwing loaves of bread to the community at large are simply the chores they must undertake to qualify for the public subsidies that keep them alive and allow them to provide their state-of-the-art sports centres and their skiing trips to the French Alps. The charade must end now.
Another byproduct of entering Scotland's fee-paying community is that you'll get a solid grounding in geopolitics and Britain's defence policy. For it seems that, as well as paying their rates bill and constructing their leisure facilities, we also pay for the children of army top brass to be educated within Scotland's independent sector. Officers earning annual salaries of more than £100,000 a year can bill the taxpayer for sending their kids to the pick of these schools. So there it is then: Scotland's hard-pressed taxpayers are unwittingly paying for a Sandringham satellite. Absolutely spiffing.
Perhaps the biggest confidence trick being pulled on the non-cheating public by Scotland's private school establishment is the employment of our teachers. This is how it currently works: we unassisted taxpayers and ratepayers spend millions of pounds each year funding four or five years of university education for our student teachers. We do this in the reasonable expectation that they will then deploy their skills in teaching our children. So why do we turn a blind eye to those teachers who, having received their publicly funded qualifications, then choose to work only with the gilded offspring of the richest in the country? So, along with depriving these establishments of the oxygen of their charitable status, we should also tax them further for the right to employ teachers whose education the rest of us funded.
The defenders of Scotland's fee-paying schools will accuse those who want to see them reclaimed by the state of crude political and economic revanchism. It's not as unsophisticated, though, as tricking the public into paying for an educational reward scheme for Scotland's rich.