Labour’s real plan for private schools is far more destructive than a tax raid

The tax raid on schools gives Starmer some red meat to throw at his party's social justice warriors
The tax raid on schools gives Starmer some red meat to throw at his party's social justice warriors - JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP

The more we are told about Keir Starmer’s plans for government, the less we seem to know.

His pledges to abolish the House of Lords and scrap tuition fees have been dropped. The “Green Prosperity” scheme was thrown in the shredder and the “New Deal for Workers” looks destined for a similar fate. Will he nationalise utilities? Defend migrant rights? It’s anyone’s guess.

But one policy to survive more than a few months without attempts to quietly shelve it is the proposed VAT raid on independent schools. This, we are informed, will help fund Labour’s many spending pledges, though such claims look increasingly shaky.

Treasury analysis last week has found that if the policy forced 100,000 pupils out of private schools (of roughly 650,000), it would require the Government to spend an extra £650m a year. The Adam Smith Institute think tank has suggested that were migration to reach 25pc, it would cost the Treasury £1.5bn.

The policy may be economically counterproductive, but at least it gives Starmer some red meat to throw at the social justice warriors on his Left. Given they like to pretend that it will only affect millionaires and royalty, and perpetuate lazy stereotypes about Eton and Winchester, this must be richly satisfying.

Yet the data tell a different story. Figures from the Independent Schools Council (ISC) have recently revealed 3,000 fewer pupils joining private schools this academic year, costing the Treasury £22m. David Woodgate, head of the Independent Schools’ Bursars Association, has previously warned that “in a lot of families, all of the second income goes on school fees”. Many parents will cut spending on other goods and services to meet the costs, acting as a drag on economic growth.

Consider also how over 80pc of private schools have partnerships with their state counterparts, providing support with careers advice and, importantly, providing teaching in shortage subjects to nearby state schools. Their independence from the national curriculum allows them to innovate, trialling new teaching methods and qualifications that they will then share with the state sector.

And there is little reason to believe abolishing private schools will lead to a more equal society: the average price of a house within the catchment area of a state school rated “outstanding” by Ofsted is 13.2pc higher than those as “good” by the inspectorate. Parents are masters of gaming the system, willing to move house, spend years attending church and hiring private tutors to get their children into top state schools.

Why wreak havoc in our education system by applying 20pc VAT on fees? Some schools may have to close. Teachers, admin staff, janitors and cooks would lose their jobs. Happy children will have their learning needlessly disrupted and pupils could be left without a school place, given the majority do not have access to additional state funding.

So again, why? Partly, it allows the Left to distract from Tory successes in education. Under Michael Gove’s reforms, academies and free schools have flourished, and England now ranks as the top Western nation for primary school reading levels.

Partly, it’s the delusion that it will boost social mobility and make the system “fairer”. It’s likely, too, that many on the Left are itching to seize control of an area of education that stands free from government interference. Here are young minds which cannot be moulded by bureaucrats at the Department for Education. Where union chiefs, like Daniel Kebede – who said last year that “reorganising society” was a motivation behind teacher walkouts – have no influence.

But here’s a real concern. While Labour’s tax raid may not cause the closure of the sector, it could do more to embolden the Left towards abolition than most people realise.

First, there has been little opposition: polls have shown just 18pc of Brits are against the move. And second, it could make private schools the preserve of only the very wealthy. Close to four-fifths of schools say they will have to reduce scholarships and bursaries, restricting access to those from less privileged backgrounds. Parents already straining to afford private school simply won’t be able to make ends meet.

Prestigious boarding schools may find it easier to absorb the cost, while those catering to special educational needs, faith schools and smaller day schools may struggle to stay afloat. The assumption that independent schools have cash reserves is based on a stereotype of the Etons and Harrows of the sector, rather than of the 90pc of other schools where no reserves exist.

Labour have been trying to crush the independent sector for decades. Perhaps, by feeding the idea they are insufferably elitist, Keir Starmer will finish the job.