Scottish private school heads attack business rates plan

Headteachers at some of Scotland's leading private schools last night warned that proposals to dramatically increase their business rates bill would force up fees and make their institutions more elitist.

Melvyn Roffe, principal of George Watsons College (pictured) in Edinburgh, said the rate change could see fees raised. Picture: TSPL
Melvyn Roffe, principal of George Watsons College (pictured) in Edinburgh, said the rate change could see fees raised. Picture: TSPL

Parents would see hundreds of pounds per year added to their bills if the Scottish Government introduces business rates reforms recommended by its own review into the levy.

Headteachers also warned that bursaries given to children from less well-off backgrounds would be cut and Scottish fee-paying schools would be put at a competitive disadvantage compared with establishments south of the Border.

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They were reacting to a business rates review conducted by former RBS chair Ken Barclay that called for private schools to pay the full levy.

Currently Scotland’s 70-or-so independent schools only pay around 20 per cent of their business rates bills, because they are charities.

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Melvyn Roffe, principal of George Watson’s College in Edinburgh, said the change could see fees raised by around £200 a year to pay for the enlarged annual bill of £460,000.

“We try to operate to keep our fees at a minimum,” Mr Roffe said.

“Our aim is to provide the highest quality of service on the least fee we can to make it available to the most people.

“It would be a bit perverse to end up with a bill, which in our case would be another £460,000 a year and that would inevitably end up on the fees. If you want the schools to be more elitist then the best way to do it is to lump on lots of extra costs and sure enough they will become more elitist – despite our best efforts not do.”

Mr Roffe said he did not believe that Mr Barclay had made his recommendations because he was opposed to private schools, but was unsure why the sector had been singled out.

“I’m not entirely sure why we have been picked out. But I think the reaction to it looks pretty ideologically inspired. In a sense I would rather have the ideological debate – do you want independent schools to exist, yes or no – rather than the constant picking away.”

Like other headteachers, Mr Roffe warned the measure would be a false economy. He argued his school was saving the government money by educating 2,500 pupils outside the state sector. In addition, the school spent £1.3 million on bursaries, made its facilities available and had members of his staff teaching in state schools.

David Gray, head of Erskine Stewart’s Melville Schools, said his schools funded bursaries for 150 children.

“If the 80 per cent reduction were to be removed that would have a considerable cost to the school and we would naturally have to pass that on to long-suffering and hard working parents who already saving the state a considerable amount of money by their children being educated outside the state system. We might have to raise the fees by one to 1.5 per cent – something like that.”

Lisa Kerr, principal of Gordonstoun in Moray, said it was difficult to understand why the private school sector had been singled out.

She said: “This proposed change can only have a negative effect on Scotland’s economy and the education of its young people: it will disadvantage Scottish independent schools compared to those in England, and will impact on our ability to offer assisted places – the overwhelming majority of which are offered to Scottish students.”

Cameron Wyllie, principal of George Heriots in Edinburgh, said his school would have to find between £250,000 and £300,000 per year to pay the increased bill, putting fees up two or three per cent.

“Either you increase fees and increasing the fees has the effect of making private schools more elitist,” Mr Wyllie said.

“The other thing you can do is find where you can save. Where you save on money is by reducing fee remission so you don’t have so many people who can’t pay the whole fee and that makes private schools more elitist. Heriots is quite clearly a charity which has for four hundred years provided free education for the children of widows and widowers. Frankly, we would never remove that so our fees would go up.”

Rod Grant, headteacher at Clifton Hall School, Midlothian, said: “If the Government presses ahead with implementing this recommendation, children from poorer families will be the unintended victims. Clifton Hall School currently supports over 60 children financially (a sixth of our school) and with an extra tax to pay it is these children who will likely pay the penalty. We currently award £350 000 per annum to this group, amongst whom are children that live in social housing and in single parent families.”

Elaine Logan, the Warden of Glenalmond College,Perthshire, said: “These changes would make Scottish schools less competitive than their counterparts elsewhere in the UK, with serious consequences for pupils, teachers, support staff and third party suppliers. In an increasingly global market, it is important that Scottish schools are not at a disadvantage in attracting school-age pupils from the rest of the UK or elsewhere in the world.”

A Scottish Government spokesman said ministers had received Mr Barclay’s report, were considering its recommendations and would respond swiftly.