PRIVATE schools in Edinburgh have been accused of hypocrisy in a row over the support provided for poorer pupils.

Both fee-paying Clifton Hall and George Heriot's criticised proposals to scrap a tax break for the independent schools sector on the grounds that it would make private education more elitist.

However, the institutions spent less in 2016 than the previous year on means-tested bursaries for poorer families – at the same time as they received the tax perk.

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Under the law, private schools are classed as charities and enjoy a mandatory 80 per cent discount on their business rates – a tax levied on property.

The Barclay Review, set up by Scottish Government Ministers, last year recommended that the relief should be abolished for private schools and the proposal was backed by the Government.

The proposal triggered an angry response by independent schools, particularly in Edinburgh.

Cameron Wyllie, who until recently was the principal of George Heriot’s, which charges up to £12,039 a year, said the policy would be “burdensome” on the school’s budget.

“The result would be one of two things – fees going up, which has the effect of making private schools more ‘elitist’, or our free and subsidised places for children from poorer backgrounds would become more limited,” he argued.

Rod Grant, headteacher of Clifton Hall school near Edinburgh, also said last year: "The anticipated effect of this policy will be that around 1,800 pupils return, almost overnight, to state-funded education.”

He added: "It will not improve education, it will continue to wreck it; it will not decrease social inequality, it will strengthen the dogma of elitism.”

However, despite claims that axing the business rates relief will make private education more elitist, figures show that the two schools spent less on means-tested support in 2016 compared to the previous year.

At George Heriot’s, £1.15 million was spent on “means tested remissions” in 2015, but the sum fell to £1.07m in the following year. According to the accounts this was due to “decline in demand for bursarial assistance”. In the same year, the charity’s income increased from £15.4m to £16.2m.

Lesley Franklin, the new principal of George Heriot’s, said: “Unusually, we did not receive as many bursarial applications as in previous years. However, I am pleased to inform you that we have had a very large number of bursarial and Foundation applications for next session which will result in our spending more on financial assistance than ever before. Your article may help to encourage even more people to visit us and to apply.”

In 2015 Clifton Hall spent £340,380 on “means-tested bursaries”, but in the following year the figure fell to £302,281. Three pupils received bursaries worth 100 per cent of the fee.

Grant said the figures are “correct”, but claimed the school had not cut back on bursarial support. He said the same amount was allocated to means-tested help every year – around 10 per cent of total income – and added: “The reason there was a drop is we were asked for less help. Fewer people applied.”

He described himself as “very anti-elitist” and said: “I can’t stress enough my own personal view that it is really, really important that bursarial help is given.”

However, Labour peer Lord Foulkes said: “I’m not surprised by these figures. It is totally hypocritical. I hope the Scottish Government will stick to their guns and go further by raising the question of their [private schools] charitable status.”

SNP MP Tommy Sheppard said: "I don't think the private schools have a leg to stand on. The days when a case can be made for elite schools are long gone."