I thank the committee for the invitation and the opportunity to address it.
Fundamentally, the charitable status and taxpayer subsidy for private schools are inappropriate and unjust. That charitable status means that all taxpayers, including the poorest, are subsidising the rich and the privileged to privately educate their children. That corrupts and derides the true spirit of charity, which is helping the needy and the most vulnerable in society.
When we consider the true spirit of charity, it is very difficult to understand how private schools can come to be classified as charities. The committee will be aware that, to qualify for charitable status in Scotland, there are three central considerations: that public benefit must be provided; that that benefit must not be outweighed by disbenefit; and that access to the benefit must not be unduly restrictive. Private schools would appear to fail on all three counts.
On public benefit, only around 4 per cent of pupils in Scotland attend private schools. The figure becomes even smaller—less than 1 per cent—when they are taken as a percentage of the whole population. To put that in another way, more than 99 per cent of the public do not benefit from the education that those schools provide.
The staggering detriment of private schools to society is even more significant. Extensive academic research bears out that, in allowing for the education of children according to their family’s social status, private schools are at the very heart of a society that is divided by inherited wealth and privilege. They entrench and perpetuate social inequality.
I recently graduated from the University of St Andrews. More than 40 per cent of Scottish students there have attended a private school.
Scotland’s most elite private schools charge fees in excess of £30,000 per year. To put that in context, average pay in Scotland is £26,472, with a cleaner earning about £8,000 per year, a care worker earning £12,000, a bus driver earning £23,000, a nurse earning £26,000 and a teacher earning £32,000. It is extremely difficult to contend that access to private schools is not unduly restrictive and it is undeniable that for the majority of the Scottish population a private school education is far beyond their reach. I stress that that fact is altered not in the slightest by the provision of a few bursaries. The figures show that they are for a negligible amount, and they are a symptom of, not a solution to, the fact that access is granted by the ability to pay—shifting the privilege ever so slightly does not get rid of it.
I hope that in these opening remarks I have made clear how charitable status and taxpayer subsidy for private schools is, at its most basic, morally wrong and entirely at odds with the true meaning and sentiment of charity. Furthermore, by reference to the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator charity test I hope that I have made clear my difficulty in accepting the legitimacy of the status quo for private schools, given their limited provision of public benefit, the unduly restrictive access to them and, more important, the huge disbenefit of private schools to society, given their clear role in perpetuating social inequality.
The recently published report of the social mobility and child poverty commission stated that child poverty is set to rise and warned that the United Kingdom is at risk of becoming a “permanently divided” society. The evidence is that 20 per cent of children in this country already live in absolute poverty. In an era of profound and increasing inequality, brutal austerity and cuts to public services, I find that I am just one voice among an increasing number that are very uncomfortable with the anomaly that is charitable status for, and taxpayer subsidy of, private schools.
I will do my best to answer any questions that the committee may have. Thank you for your time.