Gove: Private schools are 'welfare junkies'

Former education secretary accuses independent schools of being addicted to state support

Jonathan Owen

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Private schools are “welfare junkies” and should be stripped of their charitable status and forced to pay business rates, according to former education secretary Michael Gove.

He expressed his “continuing surprise” that educating “children of plutocrats and oligarchs” is still regarded as “a charitable activity.”

Mr Gove commented: “Charitable status, and the tax exemptions it offers, is very far from the only way the state subsidises private education. We taxpayers give free uniforms, weapons and rations to private school cadet forces, indeed we pay for the instructors and hand over £20 cash per cadet. The Eton Rifles are welfare junkies.”

Writing in The Times today, he also attacked the VAT exemption granted to private school fees, which he described as “egregious state support to the already wealthy so that they might buy advantage for their own children.”

Children of the rich are not "instrincally more talented and worthy, more gifted and more deserving of celebration than the rest," he said. Yet privately educated people are “massively over-represented in the highest ranks of politics, business, the media and sport,” remarked the former education secretary. 

Mr Gove, who attended independent school Robert Gordon’s College, in Aberdeen, on a scholarship, mocked the busaries and scholarships that exist to allow pupils from poor backgrounds to go to private schools. “How many students from Knowsley, Sunderland, Merthyr Tydfil or Blyth Valley ever cross the thresholds of private schools?"

He added: "And more than that, for every lucky scholarship boy or girl helicoptered out of poverty, for every Oliver Twist who graduates from the streets to Egyptian cotton sheets, how many others are left behind, like the rest of Fagin's gang, not just condemned to second-class status but deprived of the potential example of one of their number encouraging them all to rise together?”

However, the Conservative politician has hope for the future of those for whom private schools are not an option. He said: "State education is improving rapidly, new free schools and academies enjoy all the freedoms of private schools over curriculum, teacher pay and recruitment, discipline and behaviour. The only freedoms they don't have are the ability to select, or to charge fees. So they are both academically ambitious and socially comprehensive."

The money raised from stopping the tax breaks enjoyed by private schools “could be redeployed to help the most vulnerable children of all — those taken into care,” argued Mr Gove.

The former education secretary's attack comes with the independent schools already under pressure from government to do more less wealthy pupils as a condition of state benefits and "their privileged position". Ministers are currently consulting on plans that would place a greater expectation on private schools to sponsor academies, open free schools or set up fully funded bursaries.

In a statement, a spokesperson for the Independent Schools Council said: “Charitable status is worth an estimated  £150 million to our schools, but we already give back much more in partnership work and bursaries - every year our schools give over £350 million in free places and reduced fees to children from low income homes.”

They added: "Clearly if these tax benefits were removed, it would substantially impact our ability to offer extensive partnership work, which already helps 160,000 children in state schools."

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