Should our private schools lose their charitable status?

ALL-INCLUSIVE establishments serving everyone or chancers exploiting a loophole? David Shaw and Jonathan Hewat tackle the education debate


Their supporters claim that private schools give far more to the state than they take. One of those supporters, an evidently nettled Brian Monteith, responded to Neil Findlay MSP’s suggestion that private schools should lose their charitable status “if they don’t fulfil charitable objectives” like this: “Why, if people are providing a public service, helping others less fortunate, do they want to put obstructions in the way and, most illogically of all, prevent any assistance that goes to the less well-off?”

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Well, let’s start with the assertion that private schools are

“providing a public service”.

It’s a very good thing that not all public services are as expensive as those offered by private schools. According to recent research, the average annual cost of attending a public school in 2012-13 will be £12,000.

Next, let’s address the claim that private schools “help others less fortunate”.

Most private schools offer scholarships and bursaries to a percentage of their intake,

but how many of society’s “less fortunate” benefit?

If we look at Merchiston School as an example, means-tested bursaries for 2011-2012 accounted for just 8.2 per cent of gross income, and just 14.7 per cent of the school roll.

And just who are those “less fortunate” people? The children of low income or single parent families, struggling to make ends meet?

No: only 11 pupils at Merchiston (2.4 per cent of roll) received 100 per cent bursaries, meaning that most bursary recipients – or rather, their parents – covered the remaining fees themselves.

We are told we should be thanking the private education sector for saving us £200 million a year – the equivalent cost of educating those in private schools in the state sector.

Should we really be affording charitable status to any private organisation offering a service also provided by the state? Charitable status for private schools is nothing more than a tax loophole. In these difficult economic times, we need to be sure everyone pays the tax legally and morally owed.

• David Shaw is a Labour researcher at the Scottish Parliament and is writing in a personal capacity


Loretto School is open to the community and very much part of the community. We are a national,

indeed international institution and have never been regarded as an exclusive school. Our ethos is, and always has been, that of an educational charity.

What does this actually mean? Quite rightly, private schools have to prove their wider public benefit to keep their charitable status, and are regularly reviewed. The starting point must be recognition that they are schools that potentially offer access to everyone, regardless of financial circumstances.

Most independent schools offer scholarships for the most talented, often offering discounts. However, all too often these scholarships do not take into consideration the parents’ finances. One of my first tasks on joining Loretto was to reduce the financial reward attached to scholarships and divert these funds towards means-tested bursaries. This means that we are now able to ensure that financial assistance goes to the most deserving families.

A good number of Loretto pupils have their fees paid in whole or in part and come from the widest possible social background.

Many parents make great sacrifices to send their children here. It is worth noting that Scottish independent schools provide £33 million of financial support to deserving families, and that 22 per cent of Edinburgh pupils are independently educated. No-one has forced the parents of these children into this decision. Indeed, one could argue that they are paying twice, by virtue of regular tax payment.

As a £9m business employing well over 200 people, Loretto is a major economic benefit to the surrounding area.

People witness the third sector stepping in to fill the gaps, and assume it is from a desire to cosy up to the state. In reality, many charities are stepping in to fill the void where government has failed. Independent schools are not morally bankrupt; they are quite the opposite. At a time when purse strings are being tightened and public services withdrawn, independent schools are providing a vital service.

• Jonathan Hewat is director of external affairs at Loretto School

Testing times

QUESTIONS have been raised over private schools’ charitable status after a Labour education spokesman claimed they were “taking advantage” to gain “significant financial benefits” over the state sector.

Scottish Labour’s shadow learning minister Neil Findlay said “it was very questionable” what charitable role private schools played, saying he would back scrapping tax exemptions if this could be proved.

Mr Findlay’s intervention came after an investigation by the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator into charitable status cleared the first 13 schools and allowed them to remain exempt from tax.