29 November 2022

Labour’s attacks may be off target, but private schools need to get their act together


Alongside death and taxes we can now safely put ‘Labour trying to undermine private schools’ as one of life’s perennial certainties. 

When he led the opposition, Ed Miliband criticised private schools as entrenching privilege but said he wouldn’t remove their charitable status. And it wasn’t a massive surprise when former private schoolboy Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour upped the attacks – he’d advocated such things for years.

Today, even after an exodus of the most extreme lefties, Starmer’s party is still much more left-wing than it was under Blair and Brown. Many members are currently upset at some of his recent announcements, e.g. not rejoining the EU or immigration, so kicking Eton and co. is a pretty easy piece of red meat to chuck their way.

Announcing you’ll whack VAT on school fees, and use the proceeds to fund more state school teachers is a decent bit of politics. It’s something Labour MPs and members can unite behind, and it puts the Conservatives in the uncomfortable position of defending a small number of institutions that the vast majority of people could never even dream of sending their kids to.

Get beneath the headlines, however, and it’s not clear how much tax it would actually raise for the Exchequer, nor how many schools would go out of business, or how many pupils would shift into the state system. Labour says it would raise £1.7bn a year, others suggest it would lead to an extra 90,000 kids in the state system, which would both lower the tax raised and add something like £500 million a year to state schools’ costs Even so, a billion quid is not to be sniffed at.

However, even if this policy does benefit the taxman, I’m still far from convinced that it’s the smartest thing to do – and I say this as someone who has spent the past 20 years working in and defending state schools.

First of all, it’s telling that this is one of the only clear education policies Labour has. They have so far deliberately said very little on the main issues beyond funding, which boils down to “bad Tories, we’ll be nicer’. Choosing to prioritise a hackneyed attack on private schools suggests they are going for easy wins, rather than the heavy lifting of a coherent policy framework.

Secondly, going hard against private schools makes it harder to position Labour as a party of aspiration. While polling suggests the public support Labour’s stance, and tend to think private schools cause harm than good, that doesn’t mean ordinary voters share the obsession of many leftwing activists with attacking the sector. Indeed, many see going independent as something they would gladly do if they could afford it. Being on the side of those who want their kids to experience things they did, or couldn’t do, is important. Blair knew this only too well; Keir Starmer would do well to remember it too.

Finally, as long as parents have a choice, you’ll only get more kids in state schools by making state schools better, not by weakening private schools. Labour is uncomfortable stating this because much of their party won’t accept the reality, which is that the Conservatives’ reforms of the last decade have been pretty successful and started to undermine private schools’ perceived advantages.

Whether it’s standards of behaviour, curriculum quality, exam results or Oxbridge entries, growing numbers of state schools are taking on the independent sector at their own game and winning. I know this from first-hand experience from setting up a free school, where a small but significant number of our pupils would otherwise have gone to local private schools or grammars.

What will Labour actually achieve by making private schools pay more tax, aside from a few more pushy parents nudging their local academy to do better, and a boom for private tutors? Would kids in Bedford or Bradford genuinely be better off if small local independent schools went under? I’m not convinced.

That said, while I think Labour are barking up the wrong tree, the independent sector does to take a long hard look in the mirror and consider why it has relatively few supporters left.

The political attacks may be somewhat boilerplate, but they hurt because there is a good deal of truth to them. Many private schools have abandoned the communities they were set up to serve and chased the super-wealthy, particularly from overseas. As fees have grown, so the pool of local people who can access them has shrunk. Many look like they exist less to benefit wider society and more to help privileged kids access high society.

Until the independent sector gets its act together and goes back to its roots, Labour and others will keep going for them. And sooner rather than later they might be able to actually clip their wings. If they truly believe that tax on fees and the loss of charitable status would be disastrous, private schools need to get ahead of the curve now and win back the hearts and minds of people through real actions and not just warm words. Eton has a plan to do just that, but one school alone isn’t enough – it’s time for the rest to step up too.

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Mark Lehain is Head of Education at the Centre for Policy Studies.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.