Plan to protect special needs if schools lose rates relief

Gold medallist sprinter Libby Clegg revisits the Royal Blind School. Photograph: Toby Williams
Gold medallist sprinter Libby Clegg revisits the Royal Blind School. Photograph: Toby Williams
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Finance Secretary Derek Mackay is looking at excluding independent schools which cater for vulnerable pupils from proposed business rates hikes amid fears some could be put out of business.

A controversial proposal to end the business rates relief enjoyed by fee-paying schools has raised concerns about the future of small schools in the private sector attended by children with additional needs.

The Royal Blind School in Edinburgh has told Scotland on Sunday that the tax proposals outlined in the Scottish Government commissioned Barclay Review of business rates would cost it more than £100,000 per year.

The school, which counts the Paralympic athlete Libby Clegg among its alumni, has 29 pupils on the school roll.

Mackay’s Scottish budget is expected to end the arrangement whereby private schools only have to pay 20 per cent of business rates because of their charitable status. Headteachers of the big fee-paying schools have warned that the move will push up fees and reduce the amount of bursaries available for pupils from less advantaged backgrounds. At a meeting of headteachers held last week deep concern was expressed about the fate of smaller schools with small rolls dedicated to providing specialist care, which would bear a greater per capita cost and could be forced to close.

Mark O’Donnell, chief executive of Royal Blind, said: “We are concerned that proposed changes to business rates relief for independent schools could result in an additional cost of over £100,000 a year to the Royal Blind School.

“We hope that the Scottish Government recognises the particular and vital role that independent special schools provide for pupils with disabilities, which is very different from fee-paying private independent schools.

“This additional cost would be a significant strain on our resources, which will impact on our vision impaired pupils, many of whom have complex needs.”

When told of O’Donnell’s remarks, a Scottish Government source said there was “no possibility of the special schools paying more than they currently do”, adding that regulations were being looked at with a view to exempting them. The Scottish Council of Independent Schools (SCIS) warned that independent special schools were “a particular concern”.

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “The Scottish Government is engaging on the recommendation to levy business rates on independent schools and will confirm the outcome later this year.”