Why Keir Starmer is wrong about stripping private schools of their charitable status – Cameron Wyllie

Amid all the squabbles at the Labour Party conference, the familiar old cliché regarding the charitable status of independent schools reared its head, much to the delight of the Daily Mirror, for whom it was, incredibly, front page news: next week, no doubt “Astonishment as Bread is Sliced”.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer should avoid rehashing old, tired ideas about private education (Picture: Leon Neal/Getty Images)Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer should avoid rehashing old, tired ideas about private education (Picture: Leon Neal/Getty Images)
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer should avoid rehashing old, tired ideas about private education (Picture: Leon Neal/Getty Images)

Now I know education is devolved in Scotland, and I know Mr Swinney decided to remove non-domestic rates relief from independent schools in Scotland some time ago – a move now delayed by Covid until April 2022 – but Sir Keir’s promise to abolish charitable status for ‘public’ schools in England and Wales is bound to elicit some flag-waving support from the Labour Party in Scotland and indeed from many voices in the SNP.

There are, we have to accept, lots of people in Scotland who simply hate independent education and they will be cheering him on.

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It seems to me there are two ways to approach this. This first is to determine if a case can be made for independent schools falling into the category of charities.

Mostly, when we think of charities, we think of big hitters doing great work – Oxfam, Save the Children, the Red Cross. I have the privilege of being a trustee of Circle (Scotland), an organisation that does marvellous work with the most disadvantaged families – now that’s a charity, no-one can doubt it, and it’s not very similar to Gordonstoun.

But of course, lots of organisations are charities with much less obvious claims to the titles – universities are charities, churches are charities, the Scottish Blackface Sheep Association is a charity; there are, in essence, lots of organisations that are charities which might puzzle the man on the number 26 bus – just look at the register of the Office of the Scottish Charities Regulator.

Given that the “provision of education” is one of the central charitable purposes, the odd thing isn’t that private schools are charities, but that state schools aren’t. Most private schools in Scotland give significant amounts of money away to enable children from less financially advantaged backgrounds to attend.

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I used to say of the independent school I helped to lead that it had been helping to close the poverty-related attainment gap for nearly 400 years and that is undeniable.

So there’s the theory, and then there’s the question of what happens if you do remove charitable status. Sir Keir – who seems like such a decent bloke – says that he will plough the £1.7 billion raised in England and Wales into helping disadvantaged pupils in state schools. Again, on the face of it, that seems quite reasonable – logical even.

Except that’s not what would happen. Firstly, it assumes that the fee increases which would inevitably accrue when charitable status was removed would not result in any pupils leaving private schools and going into the state sector. Every new entrant to state education costs the state money – about £8,200. Currently, private school parents (most very willingly) contribute to state education through taxation without using it: that would change and it could be very expensive.

Some people hate independent schools because they perceive them to be ‘elitist’. It is simply obvious that removing any financial assistance will make them more so. I was a pupil at a private school in Edinburgh when the Labour government removed grant aid in the mid-70s; whatever you think politically, the effect was the immediate removal of a proportion of relatively less well-off children, some of them from the school they had attended for many years (subsidised by the government returning tax paid by their parents to the school of the parents’ choice).

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These young people went to a new school in the state sector, and the schools they left inevitably became more ‘elitist’. If you want to make independent education more democratised, you spread government money about – grant aid; assisted places; charitable status.

Professor Sally Power’s report for the Sutton Trust in 2013 demonstrates the lasting impact of independent education on the young people who benefited from the assisted-places scheme: what is it that Sir Keir has against similar young people whose educational security is reinforced by the charitable status of their schools?

Further to that, how do the schools respond? Contrary to popular myth, most independent schools are pretty tightly managed, they don’t float along on a sea of money bestowed to them in the 16th century.

Remove charitable status (and thus gift aid, for example) and either the fees go up or their expenditure must go down. There’s very little wriggle room in schools regarding staffing, which is by far the biggest cost to any school.

Inevitably, they look for soft areas, vulnerable to cost cutting, and for some schools that would mean chopping some bursarial aid, and once again they would lose young people from less advantaged backgrounds, some of them genuinely disadvantaged.

Sir Keir is pretty down; if heaven forfend, John McDonnell is giving him a kicking, he doesn’t need swatted by little me.

However, when there are so many ways that education in the UK, and particularly in Scotland, could be improved, it would be good to see this clever Labour leader doing more than rehashing old, exhausted policies which will, in effect, only further divide state and independent education.

Better that his team think up some new and fresh ways to ensure that state schools and their students benefit from the existence of these hoary – and yes, privileged – institutions. I – and many others – could give them some ideas.

Cameron Wyllie writes a blog called A House in Joppa

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