John McLellan: Closing private schools makes inequality worse

A campaign to save the private St Margaret's School in Edinburgh failed (Picture: Dan Phillips)
A campaign to save the private St Margaret's School in Edinburgh failed (Picture: Dan Phillips)
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Pricing out middle-class will create ever-more exclusive institutions, writes John McLellan.

Class warriors of the nation rejoice: one bourgeois institution down, just 69 to go. That bastion of inequality and privilege in Central Scotland, Beaconhurst School, is no more. Cliftonhall, Lomond, St Columba’s ... we’re coming for you next.

In the face of increasing pressure on costs and fees, and the prospect of the loss of charitable rates relief in 2020-21, Beaconhurst announced a merger with Morrison’s Academy, 20 miles away in Crieff, with the hope that its Bridge of Allan campus could be maintained for its junior school pupils in a satellite operation.

But by Wednesday the game was up. The school conceded the exodus of families making their own arrangements – many would have been put off by the prospect of a 40-mile round-trip to the senior school and Dollar Academy is nearer – meant the deal was no longer viable. Beaconhurst will cease to exist and the buildings will probably be sold for development, almost certainly houses, given how quickly a nearby Cala estate sold out. Regular trains to Glasgow and Edinburgh mean Bridge of Allan and Dunblane properties go for Edinburgh prices.

Beaconhurst joins Westbourne, Laurel Bank, St Denis and Cranley and, eight years ago, St Margaret’s in Edinburgh, on the list of defunct private schools and it won’t be the last if the rate of fee increases continues to outstrip earnings and closes off the option for more families.

Not that independent schools ever expect much sympathy from the Scottish political establishment, but in the last academic year the sector has been subjected to sustained pressure, particularly the confirmation in December of the Scottish Government’s plan to end charitable rates relief.

READ MORE: Beaconhurst school in Bridge of Allan ‘likely to close’ following merger

The argument that the tax change only addressed an anomaly – whereby state schools did not receive rates relief and paid the full amount – was a red herring because the payment was just an accounting device in which councils effectively paid themselves from one part of their books to another.

With a bill totalling about £5m a year for the sector, the impact on fees has been estimated at between £200-£300 a year on day fees of £12,000, or about two per cent. With fee increases now running well ahead of inflation, such as the five per cent just announced at George Watson’s, by the time charitable relief disappears senior school day fees could easily be hitting £14,000. For families with two children at senior school, finding £28,000 represents a net weekly income of £538 which is just £56 below the average UK household income, according to the latest “Living Standards, Poverty and Inequality” report from the Institute of Fiscal Studies.

On the reasonable presumption that the average UK family does not have two kids at private school, it’s a fair guess that to meet school fees on top of all other living costs will require a net weekly income of just over £1,000, which is into the top five percent of earnings and a gross income in the region of £70,000. Even in a wealthy city like Edinburgh where a quarter of the total school population, over 11,000 children, are privately educated, that’s a lot of families who have to be right at the top of the wages league over a long period of time for this to be sustainable.

Private school critics, like Labour’s Lord George Foulkes and Green MSP Andy Wightman, will shed few tears at the prospect of more parents rejecting the private option because of cost, but far from tackling inequality it will only make it worse as the offspring of the ultra-affluent are concentrated in fewer, more exclusive institutions bankrolled by international elites.

Deliberately squeezing private education through punitive taxes is also a disincentive for the schools to increase their work with the state sector, calling into question collaborative projects like the Swire Chinese Language Centre Edinburgh at George Watson’s, a joint venture with James Gillespie’s and Boroughmuir. It’s now being extended to other schools. At the same time, Edinburgh council couldn’t even build the new Boroughmuir big enough to meet its basic needs in the coming years. The list of joint projects between private and state is lengthy and benefits both, but the unfortunate lesson of last year for the independent sector is why go to the trouble when the reward is a political kicking?

READ MORE: John McLellan: A strange obsession with expensive trams

A bursary to inspire

A former contributor to The Scotsman’s sports pages, the teacher, ex-Hutchesons’ Grammar depute rector, and latterly popular after-dinner-speaker, Sandy Strang died after a very short illness last year and the school has just announced the establishment of the Sandy Strang Bursary Project thanks to a donation of £100,000 from his estate.

The school needs to raise a minimum of a further £300,000 to build a sustainable fund, which will be used to widen access to more pupils from less well-off backgrounds and hopes Strang’s mantra that “much is expected from those to whom much is given” will inspire the hundreds of people he influenced as a teacher to donate. I‘m in.

Booty-licious route to a job

If there was one thing Sandy Strang understood, it was rigorous application, and a couple of weeks ago I wrote about the importance of university graduates understanding their degree classifications were worth less than a CV packed with extra-curricular activities and work experience. Not so at The Spectator magazine, run by this paper’s former political editor, Fraser Nelson, where a strict “no CVs” policy applies to applications for paid internships.

Sandy would have appreciated the stiff set of tasks set for hopefuls, such as provide “a one-page summary on the dismal state of the German military” and “suggest three guests for a podcast discussion on the recent Slovakian crisis”. But he would have loved the demand for “socioeconomic support for any two Beyoncé lyrics”. Like, perhaps, Booty-licious?

Says Nelson: “We don’t care where, when or even whether you went to university.” But what if you don’t like Beyoncé?

Anyone but England

And finally to Russia and this afternoon’s big game, which Cambridge football blue Strang would have relished. An English friend on business in Dublin earlier this week was treated to some World Cup wisdom from a local taxi driver bemoaning the lack of an Irish presence. “I’m supporting whoever is playing England, but don’t get me wrong I want England to win ... Otherwise I won’t know who to support in the next round.”