John Paul Holden: New approach needed on both sides of school fence
But the tension shifted up a gear when the politician announced plans to scrap their charitable status – a perk which guarantees millions of pounds in tax breaks.
Senior figures in the independent sector dismissed the announcement. “It is a purely symbolic gesture because our schools at a conservative estimate contribute £250 million in exchequer benefits, never mind anything else,” said John Edward, of the Scottish Council of Independent Schools (SCIS), adding that Ms Dugdale had not even agreed to a meeting with his members.
But recent trends suggest Scotland’s private sector may not be as bloated as is often believed.
Amid squeezed middle-class incomes, many parents who might have plumped for an independent school are considering council-run counterparts, with significant implications for private sector fee income.
In Edinburgh, Boroughmuir High – regarded as one of Scotland’s best state secondaries – is facing an S1 oversubscription issue next month because the traditional private sector “drop-off” has not happened.
Parent representatives have warned that they are aware of a similar trend at Royal High. There will be others, no doubt.
One councillor in Edinburgh said she had spoken to a member of staff at a private school who was anxious about his institution’s future ability to invest and compete with the likes of Boroughmuir and James Gillespie’s secondaries – both of which have had millions spent on replacement campuses. “Incomes are under pressure and I would say there is concern about what this will mean for the sector going forward,” the councillor added.
And all this before addressing worries over patchy standards raised by the publication of a decidedly mixed Education Scotland report for Edinburgh’s Merchiston Castle School.
If there is fragility in the independent sector then perhaps Kezia Dugdale’s pledge has come at an ideal time.
Maybe we should be undertaking a rethink of how Scotland’s private schools are financed – in the interests of retaining a plural education system that is as accessible as possible at all levels.
But one of the prerequisites for that would be transparency.
If it has been claimed Ms Dugdale failed to consult private schools, it is also the case that accessing information about these institutions is often – for journalistic purposes at any rate – like getting blood out of the proverbial stone. Perhaps a fresh approach is needed on both sides.