Labour’s private school VAT plan could hit rural areas ‘like 1980s pit closures’

Sir Keir Starmer visits a school in Middlesbrough during his general election campaigning
Sir Keir Starmer has been warned that his VAT raid could unleash collateral damage could on local communities - Stefan Rousseau/PA

Labour’s VAT plans for private schools will unleash collateral damage on local communities and decimate their economies, Sir Keir Starmer has been warned.

Jo Thomson, the headmistress of Clayesmore School in Dorset, suggested that the potential effect of Sir Keir’s proposals on rural areas could be similar to the damage unleashed on former mining communities following pit closures in the 1980s.

In an open letter to the Labour leader, she warned that the party’s plans could lead to wide-scale job losses that would have a knock-on effect on local communities.

“Many independent schools, like those mines once were, are the lifeblood of small communities. Policies which undermine their existence will have a devastating impact on the lives of many; and not just the children who attend them,” she said.

“I cannot imagine where those hundreds of people are going to find jobs should some of the UK’s independent schools have to merge or close.”

Ms Thomson, whose 530-pupil school sits in the small market town of Blandford Forum, said “domestic staff, gardeners, caterers, plumbers, maintenance and administrative staff” could lose their jobs as small private schools draw up cost-cutting plans ahead of Labour’s proposed tax raid.

Jo Thomson, the headmistress of Clayesmore School, who has penned an open letter to Sir Keir Starmer
Jo Thomson, the headmistress of Clayesmore School, has told Sir Keir: 'Many independent schools ... are the lifeblood of small communities' - Adrian Wroth/Clayesmore School

The private school head said she “wholeheartedly” agreed with the Labour leader’s ambitions for the state sector, but urged him “not to underestimate the wider impact on small, often rural towns”.

Clayesmore School, which takes boys and girls from 13 to 18, charges annual fees of £28,311 for day pupils and £38,922 for boarders. It also has a prep school attached with 150 pupils.

Ms Thomson said, “like most independent schools in the UK, we do not educate the Jacob Rees-Moggs or the Boris Johnsons of this world”, with 95 pupils on bursaries and a further 159 on full scholarships.

It follows warnings that Labour’s plans to start charging VAT on private schools “as soon as possible” if it wins the general election could disproportionately impact smaller private schools in rural areas.

Headteachers told The Telegraph that they feared the policy could exacerbate the regional divide in education, with many schools outside London already stretched and making drastic cost cuts.

Nick Pietrek, the headteacher at £14,880-a-year Stafford Grammar School, suggested parents in more affluent areas of the country may easily be able to absorb fee hikes under a potential Labour government, while those in the North and elsewhere beyond London were more likely to struggle.

Clayesmore School in Blandford Forum, Dorset
Clayesmore School charges annual fees of £28,311 for day pupils and £38,922 for boarders - Clayesmore School

“I’ve worked in a number of different regions – I’ve worked in the home counties, and I’m very aware that in that neck of the woods there are people who particularly work in the financial services industries and so on who will most likely be in a better position to afford fee increases,” he told The Telegraph.

“I’ve got some parents at my current school who are both working two jobs – each one of those would be working in the pub during the day and then working on the hospital night shift, doing cleaning jobs in both of those respective places,” he said.

“These are not people that I think many people associate with putting their children into an independent school.”

The majority of the 1,500 schools belonging to the Independent Schools Council (ISC) are located in London and the surrounding areas. In total, 53 per cent of private schools are in the capital or the South East, educating 50 per cent of ISC pupils, according to its latest census.

However, in some rural areas, a large proportion of pupils are educated privately despite fewer independent schools.

In local authorities such as Newcastle upon Tyne, Salford and Stockport, at least 9 per cent of pupils went to private school last year.

There is also a large regional disparity in fees, with day schools in London charging £20,000 a year on average, compared to £12,000 for the North West and £14,000 for the North East, according to the ISC.

Ms Thomson also voiced concerns that many schools where parents travel from afar would face difficulty finding provision in local state schools.

She said that both the local primary and secondary schools in the rural Dorset region had insisted they would be unable to “absorb additional students in their schools should this tax be imposed on Clayesmore parents”.

A Conservative Party source said her heartfelt letter exposed “the inherent cruelty at the heart of Labour’s politics-of-envy schools policy”.

They added: “Labour has already admitted that their tax raid will lead to ‘larger classes’ in state schools. But as this letter highlights, Keir Starmer hasn’t even bothered to consider the teachers, gardeners, caterers and local communities who will suffer as these schools are driven out of business by his tax grab.”

Labour hopes to raise £1.7 billion from its plans to start charging VAT on private schools if it wins the election.

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.

The party’s manifesto, published on Thursday, contained few details on the VAT plans beyond stating that it would use the money to “invest in our state schools”.

A Labour Party spokesman said: “Labour will invest in delivering a brilliant state education for children in every state school by recruiting over 6,500 new teachers, funded by ending tax breaks for private schools.

“Independent schools have raised fees above inflation for well over a decade and do not have to pass Labour’s proposed change on to parents.”