Two interesting schools stories today.

The first is the Supreme Court judgement that parents can’t take kids out of state schools willy-nilly for off-peak holidays. In England, where the brouhaha has played out, most heads have the power to be sensible re: authorised absences depending on that child’s attendance over the 90% minimum. The problem’s really been precipitated by too many local authorities issuing too many penalty fines (now way over 100,000 each year, up by a multiple of 5 during 5 years of public service cuts, suggesting an underlying revenue-raising imperative). Meanwhile, parents have argued that a child with high attendance should be able to benefit from a discounted holiday the family might not otherwise be able to afford.

Private schools have fewer days of school per year (in fairness, kids do longer school days), but this means that in addition to such parents being able to take advantage of off-peak holidays, it’s hard to apply the law in terms of days attended per year (from which the state 90% figure is extracted). The effect of the Court judgement seems to be to place the responsibility with the school head. That’s really where it’s always been, and this seems eminently sensible. With luck, local authorities and heads will now go easier on the fines and work harder on other ways of dissuading parents from term-time holidays.

Scots know that although Scot/Eng holiday dates are different, the fact that all Scots have the same dates means that the price of connecting to cheap holidays from, say, London Gatwick, goes up during that period and that wipes much of the benefit which might otherwise accrue to Scottish families. Perhaps Scottish and English schools and authorities can chat to each other about how to vary holiday times in order to level-out holiday prices. ABTA has sensibly suggested this.

The second schools story is that The UK Labour Party’s calling for private schools, as educational charities, to be unable to re-claim VAT. They want that money spent on providing free school meals to all kids.

This is something opposition parties of the left raise from time to time. It’s not something governments, including the SNP, can accommodate. Why?

Well, first off if you exclude schools from the benefits of charitable status, then you raise questions about the whole notion of allowing educational purpose as a justification for charitable-status benefits. That’s a purpose behind a high proportion of charities. Next, if you do it on the basis that the beneficiaries of a charity are skewed towards a particular social class, you’re introducing a radical new challenge in respect of the role and function of charities. Really, you’re getting close to kicking over the trestles which support the notion of charitable status. There would be unseen – perhaps bad – consequences of that; no doubt at all.

Additionally, if, as seems likely, the increase in fees which resulted from the application of VAT led to a downturn in private school attendance (which the policy seems designed to achieve, rather than to raise revenue per se)  then you’d put those kids back into the state system and each child in that situation would cost the state a lot more than the VAT foregone if the child had stayed in private school. Result? The policy could actually cost the state money rather than raise revenue for free school meals.

Additionally additionally, it’s nigh-on impossible in the UK to fund one thing by hypothecating revenue from a specific source. That means the thing funded is conditional upon revenue from that source. So here, if the VAT change had the true underlying purpose of hitting private schools and was effective, then you’d raise less and less revenue and you wouldn’t be able to fund the free schools with it. You’d then have to fund the free school meals by raising more tax revenue, or by cutting something else and that would depart from the whole purpose of the hypothecation.

Oh, yes, and if the SNP owned that policy, they’d lose the vote of every affected parent, and many parents who aspired to be in that income group. Those votes would go to the Scottish Tories. Scottish Labour has already chosen this option and seen votes depart to the Tories as a consequence.

Hitting private schools is a hardy perennial for the left. At face value it has noble intent. But the harsh reality if that if you want to help the Scottish Tories out, you should demand that the Scottish government agrees with the notion of stripping private schools of the benefits of charitable status.

If not, you should consider demanding that private schools do ever-more to justify the perk. That won’t take away the social advantage people pay for, but it will at least make a modest yet worthwhile step towards enabling state school kids to share at least some of the benefits conferred upon private school kids. And to be fair on those private schools, although there may be no reason you’ll want to be, the good ones are aware of this social pressure and are already including such assumptions in their planning, so to a fair extent you’ll be pushing at an open door.