There is renewed interest in the efficacy or otherwise of removing charitable status from Britain’s private schools, (also known as independent schools) many of them in Scotland. There origins lie in wealthy Victorian philanthropists following the philosophy of John Stuart Mill spreading their wealth locally, investing in the community, gifting institutions for the education of the poor and the destitute. Once the government took over that responsibility, private schools switched their role to fee charging institutions, but retained their charitable status. Critics want the schools closed permanently. Reaction to this idea is finance based not educational based: claiming the state system will be unable to absorb the cost of the intake.
UK private schools don’t rely solely on fees to exist and pay the upkeep of massive old buildings, or for building new extensions. They have trusts and they accept gifts of money to reinvest in the school. This leaves them open to dark money. They also derive benefit from government assisted bursaries. Paying no tax helps enormously to balance the books if a not-for-profit school.
Our universities have a similar dilemma, forced into becoming commercial companies, slotting students into preordained roles that suit corporate needs. Learning for the sake of learning is jettisoned.
Money buys places
Readers will be aware of number of American big name actors who were jailed recently for paying phony companies and insiders to concoct exam paper passes, often in sports, exam results good enough to have their children accepted for top colleges and universities. In a few cases they admitted to hiring someone to correct the answers on their son or daughter’s university entrance exam. This is corruption by any definition.
The curious things is, such malfeasance is done for reasons of status, not for intellectual improvement. They accept the myth a private education is better than a state education. What is true, is private schools offer a community where an elite minority meet another influential minority, and are taught and learn to remain in that circle as adults for their personal advancement. Private schools perpetuate the English class system.
Private doesn’t mean brainy
Despite a belief to the contrary, research shows private schools do not turn out students of superior intellect to state schools. It remains conventional wisdom in many parts of the education world that private schools do a better job of educating students, with superior standardised test scores and outcomes. There is no truth in this assertion.
False beliefs leave our educational system vulnerable to unwarranted change or regressive policies detrimental to the learning health of our children. We listen to right-wing charlatans bemoan the state of Scottish education as they do of Scotland’s health service but we don’t connect corruption and greed with our schools and universities.
The goal of political attack on our health service is to gain control of the SNHS and hand it over to the privateers on the promise private investment offers greater benefits to state owned services. Like education, there is no evidence to support this contention. The question arises: should we apply the same wary cynicism to claims of a better education service run privately as we do claims our health service is better run privately?
I turn now for my thesis to Transparency International, a voluntary organisation working for liberal values. They took a detailed look over 400 cases of corruption, at the multi-million pound spending habits of corrupt members of the global super-rich, those with vast amounts of excess, tax-free wealth to squander on multiple homes, super-yachts, private jets, people who send their privileged progeny to elite private schools. This is where society’s peccadilloes get interesting.
Transparency International, its raison d’etre exposing corruption, found more than £300 billion of suspect funds were funnelled through UK banks, law firms and accountants before being spent on items such as a £1 million Cartier diamond ring, masterpiece art works from Sotheby’s, and a £50,000 Tom Ford crocodile-skin jacket with matching crocodile-skin handbag from Harrods. How’s that for self indulgence?
The suspect cash – which often comes from corrupt officials’ embezzlement of hundreds of millions of pounds from the state coffers of poor countries – was also found to have been spent on a £200,000 Bentley Bentayga driven by the 22-year-old son of the former prime minister of Moldova.
The filthy four hundred
In its forensic analysis of more than 400 global bribery, corruption and money laundering cases in 116 countries, Transparency International’s report found 582 UK firms or individuals had helped rich people bring suspect funds into the country. The money was paid through some 17,000 shell companies, 1,455 of which were registered to at the same serviced office above a wine bar in Birmingham.
Duncan Hames, director of policy at Transparency International UK, has a few hard and direct things to say:
“We’ve known for a long time that the UK’s world-class services have attracted a range of clients, including those who have money and pasts to hide. Now, for the first time, we have shed light on who these companies are and how they have become entangled in some of the biggest corruption scandals of our time. This should act as a wake-up call for government and regulators, and deliver much-needed reforms to the UK’s defences against dirty money.”
Seeing how the rich spend money on themselves, it comes as no surprise to know they will fork out similar sums to have their sons and daughters educated in elite institutions. If they cannot gain entry by their intellectual capacity, their parents will try to buy their way in, and often do.
Follow the money
How do the obscene indulgences of the rich link with our education system? Lets start with England. Almost £3 million was funnelled to private schools, including elite places such as Charterhouse, Harrow and Lancing College. In 2010 alone Charterhouse, in Surrey, which describes itself as “one of the great historic schools of England”, received £300,000 of funds linked to a scam called the Troika Laundromat scheme to move £3.5 billion out of Russia, according to Transparency International.
British universities, including the London School of Economics – an institution riddled with cases accepting dirty money – the University of York, University College London, and Scotland’s own University of St Andrews were paid more than £500,000 each. The payments all came from shell companies with bank accounts at institutions that have since closed owing to mismanagement and money laundering failings.
But not Scotland
We cannot argue corruption has yet to infect Scottish education. In Scotland we have worrying examples of the Labour party, pals with contractors, presiding over jerry-built secondary schools. These schools were commissioned on onerous PPP contracts (public private partnerships) costing tens of thousands more in interest repayments over twenty years than the original building cost to create. Who puts an entire nation in hock for decades and calls it a good deal? (PPP: a long-term contract between a private party and a government entity.)
In those cases, the investors creamed at least 40% off the top of the funds before handing what was left to a builder to erect the school, schools designed by cheap architects with cheap materials that won’t last the length of the corrupt contracts. No wonder so many contractors cut corners and we saw gable ends fall into playgrounds.
Banks are up to their necks in sleaze
Vast amounts of tax free money are funneled through iffy companies to banks, large deposits made from overseas companies, including in the Cayman Islands and Turkey. Large cash sums get paid into the corruption mired HSBC bank. Understandable rich young students can afford to drink Dom Pérignon at parties.
For offspring that may not have been clever enough to get into top schools or universities on their academic merit, the researchers found that more than £300,000 was spent on “educational consultants helping to secure places at the most prestigious institutions”. They includes Scottish institutions of higher education and top private schools.
In a United Kingdom run by the Tories we can and should expect corruption made legal. Britain is one of the most corrupt nations in the western world. We will hear the familiar excuse spoken more often than in the past, “it may be immoral but it is not illegal”
Nobody should assume bad behaviour is confined to a few rotten apples. It matters not a jot what we feel could be improved, radicalised in Scottish education – and I have plenty ideas of my own on that topic not shared by our government – if we don’t control how we manage our schools and universities we stand to lose one of the most envied systems of education in the world.
Under a Tory administration every aspect of Scottish values and ethos will be subjected to constant assault from the forces of corporate greed. Experiments in teaching methods aside – and there ought to be room in any child-centred system to try new ways of encouraging exploration – our egalitarian education system must be protected as assiduously as our health service. The only way to do that is by Scotland regaining full independence, and in so doing establish a system of close scrutiny and development.
NOTES: 1. There exist in Scotland and England valuable experimental private schools for the gifted, such as musicians, and for the troublesome, schools I admire and would not include in the categories I list in the essay. One in Scotland was Kilquhanity House in Castle Douglas, a free school closed in 1997, its curriculum based on the work of the notable Scots dominie AS Neill. More here: https://wp.me/p4fd9j-3IA
2. How English state schools are undermined: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2019/nov/09/most-schools-england-worse-off-next-year-than-2015-study-says