Labour’s school VAT raid ‘like taxing all clubs to penalise Man City’, says Lawson’s son

Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer and shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson
Sir Keir Starmer, Labour leader, and Bridget Phillipson, shadow education secretary, visit a primary school on Monday in Nuneaton, Warwickshire - Stefan Rousseau/PA

Labour’s plans to start charging VAT on private schools is like taxing all football clubs in the hopes of penalising Manchester City, a top headteacher has warned.

Tom Lawson, the son of former Conservative chancellor Nigel Lawson and headteacher of Eastbourne College in West Sussex, accused Sir Keir Starmer of “political posturing” over the “quixotic tax”.

Writing for The Telegraph, he said Labour’s proposals to remove tax exemptions for private schools as soon as possible if it wins the general election would thump hard-working parents while having little effect on the wealthiest families.

“The children of super-rich London and overseas parents and the country aristos are a tiny minority of the families in our sector,” he said.

“When we think of private schools we naturally think of Eton, Harrow and Winchester, thanks to their photogenic oddity, but they do not remotely represent the vast majority of our schools and the parent bodies in them.”

Addressing Sir Keir and Bridget Phillipson, shadow education secretary, Mr Lawson said: “Putting an extra levy on football clubs would have a terrible effect on our communities, even if you think Manchester City could easily afford it.

“What a shame that political posturing is being put ahead of the welfare of children already in the independent school system (and that the policy makes no distinction between the very wealthy and those who have scrimped, saved and worked more than one job to give their children an opportunity).”

‘Luxury tax’ being considered

Man City are the richest football club in England and the second-richest in the world behind Real Madrid, according to the Deloitte Football Money League. This year’s Premier League men’s champions recorded their highest revenue for a season in 2022-23, raking in €826 million (£697 million).

A “luxury tax” is reportedly being considered in place of points deductions for Premier League clubs such as Man City that are accused of breaching profit and sustainability rules. However, many have argued that this could not be implemented without harming all other clubs.

Experts claim that the most expensive private schools such as Eton and Winchester Colleges are likely to be shielded from Labour’s VAT plans, either by being able to absorb the additional cost or passing it onto parents without fear of them leaving.

Meanwhile, smaller private schools say they have been forced to draw up sweeping cost-cutting plans to avoid passing on the extra charge in full amid concerns that it could deter many families.

Eastbourne College, a leading co-educational independent school on the south coast of England, charges £29,265 for most day pupils and up to £44,415 for full-time boarders.

The fees are above the national average of £15,200 across the UK in 2023, according to figures from the independent think tank the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

Mr Lawson, who was previously deputy headteacher at Christ’s Hospital boarding school and a housemaster at Winchester College, Rishi Sunak’s alma mater, stressed that Eastbourne College also offered competitive scholarships and bursaries.

The 650-pupil school currently counts 129 scholars. A further 163 pupils across the college and its feeder school St Andrew’s prep were on means-tested bursaries in the last academic year – including 17 per cent of those aged 13 and over.

The headteacher urged any incoming Labour government to “think about the many transformative bursaries and scholarships” on offer across the sector.

“You always ask for more of this but then put a tax on those that pay for it. That does not wash. At least understand just how well independent schools provide access and partnership with the local community,” said Mr Lawson.

More than a third of all private school pupils receive help with their fees, according to the latest data from the Independent Schools Council (ISC).

The ISC’s annual census published in May 2024 showed that almost 183,000 pupils across the UK were on bursaries or scholarships in 2023, totalling £1.1 billion – a 10.2 per cent increase on the previous year. It includes 6.9 per cent of all private school pupils who were on means-tested bursaries.

The figures excludes Northern Ireland, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man, though Labour’s VAT plans will apply to the whole of the UK.

Unveiled further plans

Labour hopes its VAT plans for private schools will raise up to £1.7 billion. The party has pledged to spend it on recruiting 6,500 new state school teachers, rolling out a national “oracy” programme and ensuring all state schools in England have access to mental health counselling.

Sir Keir unveiled further plans on Monday to create 3,300 new nurseries, saying they would also be funded by Labour’s VAT raid on private schools.

Headteachers have called for clarity from Labour over how and when it will implement the tax.

The sector hopes Labour’s general election manifesto, due to be published on Thursday, will spell out further details, including whether military families will be exempt. The Telegraph revealed last week that the VAT plans will not apply to state boarding schools if Labour wins the general election, with the party already announcing exemptions for some children with special needs.

The Boarding Schools’ Association (BSA), which represents nearly 500 state and private boarding schools including Eastbourne College, has called for a VAT exemption for all boarding costs.

David Walker, BSA director, said on Tuesday: “There is no sense in implementing a tax on sleeping overnight in one type of school and not another. We strongly believe there should be no tax on children sleeping at all.

“That’s why we’re calling on all parties running to form the next government officially to recognise, promote and protect one of the jewels in the crown of UK education.”

Labour was approached for comment.


A plea to the next government: think of the many, not the few

By Tom Lawson

I imagine I am writing this to a newly formed Labour government with an absolute majority. Congratulations. What changes, though, can you make for young people of school age? Education used to be repeated three times in Labour electioneering; it has become no less important and urgent, but so far you have not really fleshed out an imaginative plan.

Sir Keir and Ms Phillipson, you have promised a transformation of the maintained school sector paid for by adding VAT on children in the independent sector.

This is a bad idea: no one else in Europe puts a tax on education and there are good reasons for that. But of course I would say this, and you have polling data showing that it is popular, so you will certainly put this policy in place quickly.

What a shame that political posturing is being put ahead of the welfare of children already in the independent school system (and that the policy makes no distinction between the very wealthy and those who have scrimped, saved and worked more than one job to give their children an opportunity).

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer and shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson
Sir Keir Starmer and Bridget Phillipson. Will his plans to tax private schools really raise the intended revenue? - Ian West/PA

You will not find this policy raises anything like as much money as promised to state schools, so I urge you to find the money elsewhere to give the maintained sector much-needed funding rises.

You could consider putting a surcharge on the houses in the catchment areas of the best state schools – those parents presumably really can afford it given they are among the few getting leafy middle-class highly selective schooling and not having to pay fees.

And even though you will certainly press ahead with this quixotic tax, do think a little bit about the children in private schools. With nearly 15 per cent of all sixth-formers being in independent schools, they are the “many”, even if not the “most”.

By contrast, the few, the children of super-rich London and overseas parents and the country aristos, are a tiny minority of the families in our sector.

Provide access and partnership

When we think of private schools we naturally think of Eton, Harrow and Winchester, thanks to their photogenic oddity, but they do not remotely represent the vast majority of our schools and the parent bodies in them. Putting an extra levy on football clubs would have a terrible effect on our communities even if you think Manchester City could easily afford it.

Do think about the many transformative bursaries and scholarships – you always ask for more of this but then put a tax on those that pay for it. That does not wash. At least understand just how well independent schools provide access and partnership with the local community.

Perhaps a congratulation or thank you for that would go some way to build credibility, given how many of your MPs had privileged education paid for by the cross-subsidy of others in excellent grammars or independent schools.

Whatever you do, please appoint some good people in ministerial roles. To have ministers in the Department of Education who care and stay long enough to find out how it works can really make a change for the better.

Nick Gibb (Con) and Lord Adonis (Lab) come to mind. Consider even making aspects of education independent of government: the national curriculum, (a single) exam board, OfSted and so on.

After all, it was under your party that the Bank of England was made independent, making monetary policy much more credible and (mostly) effective. Perhaps there are many good things you could do for education, standing up for all children: most, many, few; every one of them matters.

Tom Lawson is headmaster of Eastbourne College