Independent schools fear 'abolition by stealth'

Labour manifesto has no immediate plans to axe private schools, but heads say VAT on fees is 'putting politics before pupils' and will backfire
21st November 2019, 4:31pm
Catherine Lough and Claudia Civinini


Independent schools fear 'abolition by stealth'
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Private schools will be required to pay more tax but will not face any immediate wholesale abolition, according to plans included in Labour's general election manifesto, published today.

However, heads in the sector continue to fear for its future, with some warning that the imposition of VAT on school fees would be "abolition by stealth".

As anticipated, the party's manifesto, published today, includes a pledge to increase taxes levied on independent schools, promising to "close the tax loopholes enjoyed by elite private schools and use that money to improve the lives of all children".

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While the manifesto did not explicitly pledge to abolish private education, it added that the Social Justice Commission would advise on integrating independent schools into the state sector, with a view to creating a  "comprehensive education system".

'Ideology over improving education'

Julie Robinson, chief executive of the Independent Schools Council (ISC), said: "It is deeply concerning that the Labour Party is prioritising ideology over improving education for our children and young people. We should be working together to improve outcomes for all children.

"Abolishing independent schools through integration or nationalisation would be an attack on the rights and freedoms of parents to make choices over the education of their children, while punitive financial measures will harm families as well as school staff and communities, heap more pressure on the state sector, swell class sizes and result in higher costs."

And David Goodhew, headteacher at the Latymer Upper School in Hammersmith, London, said Labour's tax plans amounted to "abolition by stealth".

"It's good there's no iron-clad commitment to abolition, which is wise given the polling, the legal position and the impact this will have on children," he said.

"But let's assume 'tax loopholes' means VAT on fees and business rates. If anyone in the sector thinks they are off the hook here, lots of this sounds like abolition by stealth."

'Strange form of redistribution'

Mr Goodhew highlighted research from the ISC showing that private schools saved the treasury £3.5 billion per year, and said many parents would be priced out of the sector if VAT were introduced on fees.

"Whatever you think about the intention behind this policy, it's going to backfire. It won't fund free school meals for primary school pupils.

"Universal free primary school meals will benefit all pupils, including those from affluent homes, so it's a strange form of redistribution. It is not going to benefit the many."

Mike Buchanan, executive director of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference, said: "Independent schools already contribute significantly to local and national economies including paying their taxes. Any further tax is putting politics before pupils and will have serious unforeseen consequences.

"VAT on school fees will cost the taxpayer £416 million by the end of the fifth year and will continue to drain the education budget.

He added that the measures would hurt families, increase class sizes and pile further pressure on state school budgets.

"Any future government should think very carefully about attacking one of the UK's great national assets and exports, admired around the world," he said.

Mr Goodhew added: "There's a lot of identity politics now, with stereotypes about bankers and billionaires, but people are missing the children in this, who will have their education disrupted.

"Lots of our parents aren't Russian oligarchs, they are taxi drivers, and this will tip them over the edge."

He said that while the language of the manifesto was "opaque", he felt Labour had "floated something nuclear" through threatening complete abolition, with a view to securing a public compromise over VAT on fees.

"But there's nothing middle ground about this," he said. "The idea all independent schools are Eton is a nonsense."

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