28 September 2023

Starmer is targeting private schools because he doesn’t have an education policy


Labour’s U-turn over stripping charitable status from private schools is not a complete surprise.

It was never going to be an easy venture. Undoing centuries of charity law to target one particular type of organisation wasn’t going to end well for anyone other than the lawyers required in the inevitable court cases.

Labour is still set on removing the tax benefits that independent schools have if it wins the next election: getting rid of the reduction in business rates that they enjoy and whacking 20% VAT on to school fees. 

The amount of money raised for the taxman is still uncertain. The IFS reckons it would net around £1.6bn, but the think tank EDSK thinks it could be much less than that, or even lose the government money if lots of pupils leave the independent sector and join state schools.

So the fiscal impact is uncertain, and it’s creating a lot of concern for the families and schools affected too. Whilst there has undoubtedly been a facilities arms race across much of the independent sector, many private schools are less Downton Abbey and more shabby chic.

And the idea that all their families will suddenly find thousands of pounds extra for fees down the back of the sofa on top of higher mortgage repayments is for the birds. Having run a school myself, I can tell you that most literally don’t have the space to increase class sizes if they slash staff numbers to make ends meet.

Ironically, the schools that will cope best will be the ones who have most ignored their local roots and sought out wealthy international families for income. Like our universities, they’ll probably double down on rich kids from overseas. It’ll be the smaller, less wealthy, more locally-focused schools that will suffer most.

Labour says it’s all about fairness, and needing more money for state schools. It makes me wonder why it’s fair to put VAT on schooling but not university or private healthcare fees.

And to any state school Headteacher thinking they’ll feel better off from this, a warning: they’re not going to give you the money directly, but spend it on your behalf on any number of initiatives.

It feels like it’s aimed at deflecting people from all the other Labour education policies, most of which are discredited leftovers from the days of New Labour

On the things that state schools really need a government to sort out – like children’s social care, mental health support, how high-needs SEND is organised – there has been little beyond ‘something something evil Tories we’ll do better something something’. With the general election possibly less than a year away, we need more than this, but details come there none.

In the end it probably won’t matter. Schools are just one of many things people will think about when casting their eventual vote. And taxing other, wealthier people is always popular.

But let’s not pretend that making private schools and their families poorer will make state schools and their families richer. Indeed, the most likely outcome of this kind of partisan policy beyond some positive headlines in The Guardian is we’ll all end up that little bit worse off overall. 

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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.