15 September 2023

Starmer’s doublethink on private schools


‘We have got fantastic independent schools, I want them to thrive,’ Keir Starmer said in an interview with Jewish News. This is an odd claim from a man whose stated policy of charging VAT on fees is predicted to force 25% of pupils to leave. It’s impossible to see how his dream of thriving private schools will be realised if 135,000 children leave them to join a sector that’s already struggling to find the resources for the pupils they already have.

What’s really happening here is an attempt to triangulate. Ever since Tony Blair stepped down, Labour has had a troubled relationship with fee-paying schools, veering from indifference under Gordon Brown to open hostility under Jeremy Corbyn. Starmer recognises that the politics of envy will not play out in the red wall constituencies he needs to win back, where many working class voters quite like the idea of sending their kids to private school if they could. And so he, and the Shadow Secretary of State for Education, Bridget Phillipson, have come up with a superficially dry and technocratic solution.

‘Ending the tax break is not aimed at independent schools on any ideological grounds,’ he insists. ‘It’s simply trying to answer the question of, if in your state schools you don’t have teachers in basic subjects like maths then are you going to do anything about it?’

Well, yes, if you are in government, you should. You should, perhaps, pay teachers more, and fund a building programme for schools that begins to reverse the short-termist plans that have characterised successive governments over the decades (including Labour). What is genuinely baffling is to look at a sector like education and conclude that the answer to its problems is to make one successful aspect of it considerably weaker.  

Grey and laden with the deadening language of charitable law it may be, but Labour’s proposed policy on independent schools is still class war divested of emotive imagery.  Starmer is speaking in tongues: he wants to reassure aspirational parents that fee-paying schools are safe with him. But he also wants to placate those on the left of the party, including the Deputy Prime Minister, who despise the sector (even though many of his advisors and MPs benefited from attending such schools themselves). In the run-up to the coming election he and his shadow cabinet will visit every sort of school – faith, single-sex, comprehensive, academy, junior, secondary, sixth form college… but they will not set foot in a school that charges fees. A strange sort of support.

As for the state sector, the supposed gains that this new tax on parental ambition is supposed to bring are deeply questionable. The EDSK think tank’s recent paper on the proposal exposed just how poorly researched Labour’s plans are. The £1.6bn that Phillipson claims it will raise is based on some extremely dodgy and outdated assumptions, including charging VAT on nursery fees. Any money raised will likely be swallowed up by hidden costs, and the additional strain on state schools accommodating those leaving the sector could put the Treasury at a net loss. But, as we are often told, politics often trumps economics.

One thing’s for certain, you can’t have a sector thrive if its already thin margins evaporate. Schools will close, jobs will be lost, state schools will, again, pick up the mess of poor policy. Until he’s clear about these consequences, teachers and families shouldn’t believe his pious reassurances. I’m not holding my breath. 

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David James is deputy head of an independent school in London.

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