To hell with Holyrood’s Good Intentions

Over the years, the Scottish Parliament has had more than a few “finest moments”.  One such was the process and especially, the debates around creating Scotland’s own charity framework.  The narrow point of interest, certainly as far as the media was concerned, was the potential removal of charitable status for the nation’s independent schools.

One of the things that the law – the Charities and Trustee Investment (Scotland) Act 2005 if you are interested – did was establish some rules around who could be a charity.  A charity would be an organisation working to defined ends and have to meet a test that included working out if its activity was for the public benefit.  And despite a fair bit of verbal hand-wringing about how dismayed they were that this issue had come to dominate proceedings and that making private schools the fall guys was not the intention, MSPs made their views plain in the legislation they chose to pass.

They signalled a very strong and good intention to the new charities regulator in Scotland, OSCR.  Since then, the government-funded body has done its best to thwart these good intentions and shied away from the fight.  It has taken years to get where we are now but after three years of investigating the extent and nature of the supposed public benefit of four of Scotland’s fee-paying schools, apparently the regulator is satisfied that there is one and they can keep their charitable status.

Why were the schools so keen to keep it?  For the tax breaks effectively.  It saves them a fortune on tax and indeed on business rates.  In a supreme irony, you, me and the remaining 95% of the population who would find the doors barred if we tried to enrol our weans at these institutions, also help pay for wealthy weans to get the best education their families’ money can buy through the loss of tax revenue.

And if that wasn’t quite enough irony for you, in England, where the law is much looser on public benefit and charitable tests – largely because Blair bottled it – the Charity Commission, the body which regulates charities in England and Wales – has applied much tougher tests so that it can junk private hospitals and schools from charitable status.

OSCR has today justified why it spent three years on this matter, arguing that its close scrutiny has resulted in wider access to the schools and stronger partnerships with state schools to access resources.  But that is not the purpose nor function of the country’s charity regulator.  Not only has it ignored its original legislative steer but it has now also over-extended its remit.

The idea that schools which charge the majority of its pupils upwards of £12,000 a year to attend should be considered charitable bodies is anathema to the very concept of charity.  The Scotsman had a pious leader on the matter, sucking up, no doubt, to the mores of most of its remaining 40,000 readers, while reminding we plebs that some of these schools started out as charitable bequests, founded by philanthropists like George Watson.  Yes, but that was a very long time ago.  Since then, private schools in Scotland – most of which are concentrated in Edinburgh – have evolved into bastions of privilege.

Children who go to them – and I know some very nice ones – are not so different from other children but they do enjoy an education, in its widest sense, denied to most children in the state sector.  Their parents pay handsomely for this, and I know that many struggle to do so, but that is their choice.  That by itself does not justify their children’s school being allowed to call itself a charity, with the attendant benefits and tax breaks.

The wider issue is what to do about these government and public bodies which thwart – regularly – the democratic and legislative will of the Scottish Parliament.  I and others could produce huge lists covering the areas where policy has not translated into practice, even where statutory duties have been created.  Another fine example this week has been the consultation by Transport Scotland on the future of rail services in Scotland.  Despite the fact that we have a Scottish Government as well as a majority of parties and MSPs favouring investment in and promotion of public transport links as a key part of our infrastructure, Transport Scotland wants us to travel in the opposite direction.  Under whose mandate?

Worst of all, there is a game played at all levels.  MSPs might froth a bit about such happenstances but then they move on, doing little to address the problem with the post-legislative scrutiny powers their committees have.  The Scottish Government points to the fact that it is not directly responsible for implementation, that responsibility sits over there somewhere and what can it do?  Government officials do not see it as their responsibility, except only rarely, to follow up on legislation, policy and guidance lovingly crafted, often over years, to see if it is actually happening.  And local authorities, health boards and other public bodies upon whose shoulders responsibility usually rests to implement the requirements of laws and policy guidance either put it in the bottom drawer and hope everyone forgets about it, make a half-hearted effort, re-interpreting the strict definitions as they go to “suit their local needs” or simply bleat nae money as an excuse for non compliance.

It simply isn’t good enough.

6 thoughts on “To hell with Holyrood’s Good Intentions

  1. Pingback: Letting the Days Go By – Scottish Roundup

  2. I agree with Jaqueline & The Burd.

    The issue with Private Schools outlined in this post is nothing to do with standards, more with the selfish, self centred attitude that they (the schools themselves) have regarding seeking charitable status while placing economic hurdles in the path of potential entrants.

  3. I disagree with you Burd. Most people I know would like their local school to have the standards of private schools rather than vice versa.

    Sadly Jacqueline, for the past 30 years since standards in state schools started their decline at the introduction of comprehensives, your good intentions (and mine) haven’t make one ounce of difference to the standard of state education. You seem to think that parents who decide to send their child to a private school are selfish. I disagree with that. Why should parents sacrifice their child’s formal education for a ’cause’ which has failed? What is it about people who are successful in their working lives and can afford somehow to educate their child privately, that creates so much angst?

    Burd, get in touch with Dundee High School. You may be very surprised at the number of pupils it has on its roll who get assisted fees or full bursaries. It’s certainly not just one or two. (DHS is only an example).

    I like this blog too but it doesn’t mean to say I have to agree with the owner’s opinion all the time. Now that would be boring.

  4. Have to disagree subrosablonde. I don’t think the intention her was to criticise the endeavours of private schools at all. It was to draw attention to OSCR overstepping the mark; to address wider issues and, yes, to look at whether private schools should get charitable status.

    I would certainly like to see the results currently being achieved in private schools in state schools, who wouldn’t. But short of a massive injection of money and conscience (we all want better services but will not pay the tax to achieve it or ditch trident) it isn’t going to happen.

    I am frankly sick of the argument, used by many (including a relative who sends his son to private school) that it is not for the elite and bursaries are available. I suspect the money saved through charitable status is greater than that spent letting in some weans whose parents are struggling. And yes I can understand how many parents feel when they get depressed by the poor standards in schools. A great many of us feel the same. But some of us choose to lobby politicians, work with schools to improve services and remind people of the need and right to a decent standard of education for all, not just our own wean.

    I like this blog.

    • I like you too Jacqui! Great comment and exactly summarises how I feel. The wider issue is the fact that politicians gave a clear legislative lead here and those charged with implementing it have shied away. Sound familiar?!

      Most people in Scotland would want private schools – and also exclusive golf clubs and private health clinics and the like – to pay full tax and for that money to go towards other things. Politicians articulated that. The regulator has ignored it.

      As for bursaries, I’d love to see how many bona fide weans who wouldn’t have gone otherwise actually get a bursary to attend and how many are kids who were on fees but now no longer can pay.

  5. The more important point is not the charitable status of private schools, but the failure of the state system to learn lessons from their teaching systems.

    In Scotland private schooling is thought to be for the elite, but I know a few parents who have chosen to send their children to them because of the poor standards in state schools. Yes that’s their choice and they make enormous sacrifices to ensure they’re providing their children with what they consider to be better than their local state schools, but they shouldn’t be pilloried for it. Many are on incomes far less than politicians.

    I reiterate, we should be aiming to emulate good private schools in the state system not criticising their endeavours. I can think of many quangos, registered as charities, which would be far more deserving of negative comment.

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