John Edward: At every school, education will always come first
In A lively article last week, Hugh Reilly accused independent schools of begging and of deliberately diverting public money from deserving causes, patronised some of the more than 30,000 Scottish children at those schools in Scotland as “plucky … wretchedly poor children making good” and condemned all the rest as part of a tax-evading “smiling paternalistic elite”.
Dickensian language and invective aside, the main impetus for the piece was the “revelation” elsewhere that registered charities receive some mandatory relief from non-domestic rates (NDR).
The comparison was made between independent schools, as charities, being charged rates at a charity level, while state schools pay full rates.
It was troubling that no-one chose to mention that independent schools in Scotland are held to a strict test of their public benefit to remain on the charity register and thus receive that relief.
The Charities Act was passed – with much vigorous and detailed debate – in 2005. Independent schools are the highest priority in Scotland for testing under that law, a test considerably more robust than elsewhere in the UK.
The law makes specific reference to the possible restriction that fees and charges might create, and the test requires that any such barrier be mitigated. That mitigation, through financial assistance and other public benefit, though dismissed out of hand by Mr Reilly, far outweighs any rates relief that independent schools receive.
Financial assistance, the majority of which is now means tested, was in excess of £30 million last year. Without their charitable status, schools would be under no obligation to spend any fee income on any access measures. Equally, independent schools are run and maintained entirely from fee income from parents of more than 30,000 pupils, parents who also pay their taxes. Rates relief is offered to all registered charities in Scotland – many of which charge fees. Independent schools work hard to meet the public benefit test because of their charitable purpose, the advancement of education.
That purpose is a matter of history and of definition, not a financial concern. For every school, as every family, education comes first.
• John Edward is director of the Scottish Council of Independent Schools.
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