George Heriot's head teacher: Foulkes is wrong, our school helps needy

The head of George Heriot's - a private school in Edinburgh - responds to calls from former Labour MP George Foulkes for the school to be stripped of its charitable status.

The head of George Heriot's school (pictured) has responded to comments made by Lord George Foulkes. Picture: Creative Commons

With 13 working days to go before retiring from the post of Principal at George Heriot’s School, I might have been forgiven for thinking, as it were, that it was safe to go back into the water.

But, in fact, a form of fierce sea life in the shape of George (Lord) Foulkes has been circling the good ship “Jinglin’ Geordie” for all those years and has now risen to the surface to try to take a bite.

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Lord Foulkes: Why private schools harm our education system

Of course, everybody has their right to a view on independent schools, and Lord Foulkes has every right to express his at this crucial time as the Scottish Government prepares to make its final decision on the findings of the Barclay Commission.

However, his 2 December comment piece is curiously devoid of facts except for the rather odd one about the proportion of privately educated pupils in Switzerland which, at 5 per cent, is much the same as Scotland, so it’s difficult to see the point being made as being about the influence of independent schools on a nation’s educational success.

It is, in trying to see off his venerable lordship, necessary to just point out two things about Heriot’s, for which he seems to have a particularly angry bee in his rather grand parliamentary bonnet.

Firstly, we do carry on our original charitable intention, for more or less the same number of “puir, faitherless bairns” as we started out doing in 1659. The funding of these places has inevitably changed, and these 63 100 per cent free places (and about 50 or so other bursarial places) are funded, in part, out of the fee income from our fee-payers. The Foundation is at the very heart of Heriot’s and always has been.

Secondly, it is just abject nonsense to say that removing business rates relief, or removing Gift Aid, or even insisting on fee-payers paying VAT on school fees would raise more money for state education. The effect of any or all of these things would be to make independent schools more elitist by driving up fees and reducing funds available to provide bursarial aid.

Further, some parents would inevitably decide that they simply could not afford school fees anymore and that they would, therefore, take up places at state schools for which they, as taxpayers, are already paying. State education is only “free” at the point of delivery: people pay for it through taxation and users of independent education pay twice – it’s as simple as that. Every child who left Heriot’s and went to the state sector would cost £6,000 or so – if everyone left Heriot’s, the City of Edinburgh would need to find £10,000,000, just for the displaced Herioters, far less all the other independently educated boys and girls.

The Heriot’s Foundation, which has provided succour and education to bereaved children for nigh on 400 years, would presumably cease to exist. I don’t really care if it’s Michael Gove (an unlikely ally to Lord Foulkes, save that he, too, was privately educated) or anyone else who suggests there is an economic argument for taking away these “subsidies” – accorded because we are a charity – it’s just not true.

It’s good that a man of Lord Foulkes’ years still has the energy to beat any drum – but what a shame that all this political clout and vast experience still has the tang of a vendetta when so much needs done in Scotland, and in Scottish education, to which a man of his standing could so usefully contribute.

Cameron Wyllie,Principal, George Heriot’s School, Lauriston Place, Edinburgh