Private school sector ‘robust’ despite Brexit uncertainty

George Heriots school pipe band perform in Edinburgh. The capital is home to one in three Scottish independent schools. Picture: Greg Macvean

George Heriots school pipe band perform in Edinburgh. The capital is home to one in three Scottish independent schools. Picture: Greg Macvean

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The private school sector in Scotland remains in “robust” health despite a slight fall in pupil numbers in the past decade and uncertainty over how Brexit will impact on students from overseas.

There are 29,647 pupils in 72 independent schools north of the Border, accounting for 4.1 per cent of pupils in the country, according to statistics from the Scottish Council of Independent Schools (SCIS) shared with The Scotsman.

John Edward, SCIS director, says private schools' charitable status is justified. Picture: Julie Bull

John Edward, SCIS director, says private schools' charitable status is justified. Picture: Julie Bull

Of that number, 19 are mainstream boarding schools with 3,072 pupils – with 46.5 per cent of boarders from overseas.

“If the Brexit model pursued is one that focuses on reducing immigration, rather than retaining access to the single market, then it inevitably will have an impact, just as the government’s previous moves to reduce student visas have had an impact as well,” said John Edward, SCIS director.

“Visa reforms have impacted on schools as well as universities, even though the schools are highly regulated and low risk.”

Edward said there had been a slight decline in pupil numbers since 2007 but that teaching numbers had remained steady.

“We’re roughly in the same place as we have been for a while – which makes us around the size of the seventh biggest local authority in Scotland,” he added.

“In terms of teacher numbers, we’re around the fourth biggest.

“Historically, the number of schools has fallen over the last 60 years.

“But that’s because smaller schools, often proprietor-owned, have closed down.

“In the last five years, two properitor-owned schools have closed and a couple of Steiner schools closed, but nothing really substantial.

“The biggest change in the sector is the growth of independent special schools, an area that’s been getting bigger over the last ten years.

“We’ve always had grant-aided schools such as Donaldson’s or the Royal Blind School, but now, increasingly, you’re getting smaller schools dedicated to complex additional support needs – such as behavioural or emotional support needs.”

Edward believes there is a misunderstanding of the charitable status independent schools enjoy in the UK.A recent newspaper poll found that a majority of Scots believe they should either lose the status or be banned.

YouGov research found 44 per cent of respondents believe private schools should not enjoy charitable status, while a further 7 per cent believe they should be banned altogether.

“People should be reassured that schools do not get charitable status without passing stringent tests,” he said.

“This is a not a hidden benefit the schools have arranged for themselves. A school such as George Heriot’s has been a charity for more than three centuries.

“Our sector is closely scrutinised by both the Scottish Parliament and the independent regulator in a way no other group of charities has been.”

The independent sector remains strongest in Edinburgh, where one in three Scottish private schools is based.

“The individual nature of the schools is their strongest appeal,” Edward said.

“Edinburgh may be home to one in three schools, but each is very different and has its own approach to certain things.

“There’s an assumption that independent schools have a focus on great exam results and university entry. But the level of learning support our schools offer to pupils of all abilities is one of the biggest attractions to parents.”

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