Labour still hates private schools

27th May 2005 at 01:00
Why is the Labour party leadership renewing its attack on private schools? Because private schools are like fox-hunting. Tony Blair does not really care about them one way or the other. But he attacks them both to try to persuade disenchanted Old Labour MPs and voters to keep on supporting him.

Private schools are disposable, as far as he is concerned, just like the men in red jackets blowing horns. If it pleases his rebellious troops to victimise them, he will do it. Pontius Pilate would have understood.

In the Queen's Speech last week, the Government announced it would bring back the Charities Bill which ran out of time in the previous parliament.

If the Bill becomes law, as it probably will, it will force many independent schools to do more charity work to avoid losing charitable status and therefore suffering more tax. This will make life harder for them. It will, at a minimum, result in higher fees for the parents.

Chris Woodhead, who now leads a chain of private schools, is one of those who thinks this attack is not too serious. He has said that giving up charitable status would add 4 per cent to fees and this should not be too big a problem. But 4 per cent would certainly hurt those struggling to afford private education already, for whom such an increase would be the last straw.

But there is a worse threat. Private schools with charitable status may not be allowed to give it up. A school that did not want to do the charitable activity required, might not be permitted to "go commercial". As its assets were created by charitable donations, the law might insist that they remain for charitable use. So the pressure on such schools to do charitable work could be as powerful as the threat of being closed.

What is wrong with that? Isn't charitable activity a good thing? Yes, most of us agree with that. But this is not charity. Charity, by its nature, is voluntary. This will be done under duress. It is more like extortion.

It is also unjust treatment of the parents of children at private schools.

They are already paying for their children's education twice. They are paying through their taxes, then paying school fees. Making private schools do charitable work would mean they would pay three times. This would create an even bigger discouragement to private education than the existing laws.

(Quite deliberately as far as Old Labour MPs are concerned.) What about one of the fast-growing, relatively low-cost, faith-based schools? Their customers are often not rich at all - I met one who was a single mother living on a council estate who has been giving up 40 per cent of her income to save her children from a comprehensive school where they were being turned into delinquents. She took them out and put them in an evangelist school instead.

If such schools for the poor were taxed, this would be obscene. But if such schools were not taxed, private schools would suffer tax depending on whether the customers were rich or poor. This would expose the fact that this is really an attack on the wealthy - an exercise in class hatred.

Old Labour hates private schooling, its growth and the growth of home schooling because these things imply that state schooling is not good enough. The easy way to dispose of that uncomfortable suggestion is to make life as hard as possible for private schools and, if possible, destroy them.

It is sometimes argued that private schools should not get a charity "tax break". That is a sick joke. The parents pay twice, as already mentioned.

But more fundamentally, education should not be aggressively taxed anyway.

You don't need to think education is a charity to believe it is a good thing.

Instead of increasing further the burdens on private education, parents should be allowed to take the cost of the state education of their children and spend it on private schooling instead. That would give poorer parents - above all - a real choice. They are the ones whose children are most frequently condemned to 'bog-standard' comprehensives. They and hundreds of thousands of others would benefit from a reduction in the burdens on private schooling, rather than an increase.

James Bartholomew is the author of The welfare state we're In: the failure of the welfare state

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