We live in an era of profound and increasing inequality, at the heart of which is inequality in education. For any nation truly committed to creating a fairer and more equal society, private schools have no place. If the complete abolition of private schools in Scotland appears unlikely at present, however, the removal of their charitable status is a moral necessity.
Under this status, Scotland's elitist and privileged private schools, serving only 4% of pupils, enjoy staggering tax breaks in the form of 80% mandatory discount on non-domestic rates, whilst financially-strapped state schools, serving the remaining 96%, pay the full sum. This means that, for example, a selective private school such as Fettes College sees its tax liability reduced from £209,139 to £41,828, a taxpayer funded subsidy of £167, 311, whilst Wester Hailes state school, where over 40% of pupils are are eligible for free school-meals, pays its tax liability of £261,873 in full (2011).
Private schools are at the very heart of a society divided by inherited wealth and privilege. For anyone in doubt about this, the figures speak for themselves. The top universities are dominated by the elite. Although only 4% of pupils in Scotland receive their education at a private institution, at the University of St Andrews, over 40% of Scottish students have been privately educated. In the UK as a whole, a mere 7% of pupils receive their education at a private institution, yet in the academic year 2011-12, Oxford, Cambridge, Durham and Bristol all admitted a student population of less than 60% state school students.
Over one third of MPs have been privately educated, a figure which has increased since 1997, with 13 schools providing 10% of all MPs. The current Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister, Chancellor, Chief Whip, Mayor of London and 59% of the current overall Cabinet have been privately educated. Over 60% of members of the House of Lords have been privately educated, with nearly half coming from 12 private schools. 15 of the 17 Supreme Court judges and heads of division, 83 of the 114 High Court judges, over two thirds of judges, barristers and leading journalists, and over half of doctors and leading chief executives have been privately educated.
The Sutton Trust (2007) has discovered that background plays a bigger role in determining educational outcomes in Britain than is the case in most other countries and that social mobility is poor.
Iannelli and Paterson (2007), in their Scottish study, discovered that education has not increased social mobility and that the gap between social classes in the chances of entering top level occupations is still determined by parental class.
The Cabinet Office (2008) reported that despite huge economic, social and political changes between 1970 and 2000, intergenerational social class mobility has not risen, in contrast to the 1950s and 1960s when children often gained higher status jobs than their parents.
The Institute of Fiscal Studies has found that income inequality is at its highest level since the 1960s.
Not only do children from different social classes not mix at school, they rarely meet outside of school either as neighbourhoods are increasingly segregated by wealth (Dorling et al, 2007).
The picture is very clear. Private schools preclude equal opportunities in education, entrenching and perpetuating social inequality. Their elite ethos confirms a society in which the ability to succeed is determined by the wealth of your family and the school they can afford to pay for you to attend. They afford unearned and inherited privilege, creating and maintaining a tiny elite which dominates and rules wider society. This is a privilege far outwith the reach of the vast majority of the population, a fact altered not in the slightest by the negligible provision of a few scholarships and bursaries. These are a symptom of, not a solution to, the issue that access is granted by the ability to pay - shifting the privilege slightly does not get rid of it. It is furthermore extremely interesting to note that these often appear to be awarded less in a spirit of charity than after repeated coercion from the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator.
Private education is not about freedom of choice. With Scotland's most elite private schools charging fees in excess of £30,000 per year, and with even the 'cheapest' totalling tens of thousands of pounds per year, there is no choice involved for the overwhelming majority of the population. Average pay in Scotland is £26,472 (2013). A cleaner earns on average £8,067 per year; a shop-worker, £11,174; a care-worker, £12,804; a brick-layer, £22,476; a bus driver, £23,095; a nurse, £26,158; a teacher, £32,547. How do these workers benefit from their hard earned income tax subsidising the private schools of the elite? How does the work of these 'charities' feedback into their own life experience?
Taxpayer support for these elitist institutions means that the Scottish state is guilty of no less than subsidising social apartheid, presiding over a system where the poor pay for the privilege of the rich to send their children to private schools and maintaining and endorsing a structure which precludes social mobility and entrenches inequality.
The answer to the issues facing state schools is not the rich sending their children to private schools (and the poor subsidising this privilege). It is investing in the state system for the benefit of all society. Education must be a right, not a privilege. The removal of charitable status from private schools, in order to stop the grave iniquity that is taxpayer subsidy of these institutions, is the very least that we can demand as an initial step towards this.
I have recently created a petition to urge the Scottish Government to act on this issue, which can be signed online at the following address. http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/gettinginvolved/petitions/charitablestatus