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“Labour wants every parent to be able to send their child to a great state school. But improving them to benefit everyone costs money. That’s why we can’t justify continued charitable status for private schools.”
Thus spoke Labour leader Keir Starmer this week at his party’s conference as he reignited one of British politics’s most reliable rows on whether independent schools should enjoy the tax benefits of being recognised as charities.
It is a debate that comes along with reliable frequency. Even the Tories have dabbled in it – as recently as 2017, Theresa May toyed with using it as a threat to get large public schools to open new grammars in the state sector.
Throughout history, many Labour figures – not all, admittedly – have assumed that bashing the toffs by ramping up tax on their schools will play well with voters who cannot or would not pay to go private. I am not going to use this column to interrogate the educational wisdom of such policies – I will leave that to others to decide – but I do have serious doubts over their use as part of a political strategy.
Labour only has limited opportunities when it comes to making bold, eye-catching educational interventions, and I fear that the announcement on Sunday was a waste of one such opening. If Starmer and Angela Rayner thought their intervention would result in polls moving in their direction, they are likely mistaken.
This is especially the case among voters in the kind of places that Labour needs to win back if they stand a chance at the next election. The fact is that normal people in the normal places of the red wall simply don’t care about independent schools.
Through polling and focus groups, I have extensively tested attitudes in places like Darlington and Doncaster to the private school sector. The answer that comes back time and again is that the existence of Harrow and Winchester simply doesn’t impinge on the lives of people in the constituencies that should matter most to Labour’s strategists.
In stark contrast to the passions that private schools can kindle among middle class Londoners, most red wall voters struggle to even express an opinion about their existence. Certainly they don’t hate them and even when pushed they are reliably ambivalent. If you’re struggling to pay the bills in Redcar, the idea that someone down south might pay to send their offspring to Rugby is essentially an irrelevance. Secondaries and primaries do matter enormously, of course, but it’s the ones at the end of their road that they care about, not boarding schools in far off places.
The Labour proposition is, obviously, a policy that is pleasing to what’s left of the Labour base in the relatively affluent cities, but it is not one that will do any business for them in the places where the party needs to be converting back ex-supporters.
Luckily for Starmer, there’s still at least two years to go before the next election. He and his party would do well to quietly drop this distraction and when they next choose to chance their arm with an educational announcement, go big on the positive changes they might want to bring to the state sector.
After all, there is a precedent for putting positive school policies at the centre of a successful Labour electoral strategy. “Education, education, education,” anyone?
Ed Dorrell is a director at Public First