The Prime Minister has accused Sir Keir Starmer of wanting to “punish” the parents of private school pupils and stoking a “class war” with Labour’s pledge to charge VAT on school fees.
Rishi Sunak, who was privately educated, said the Opposition would be “clamping down” on the aspirations of parents who work “really hard” to send their children to independent schools with its policy.
But Labour hit back at Mr Sunak, with shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson calling his words an “insult” to families across the UK.
Mr Sunak attended Winchester College in Hampshire, one of the UK’s top and most expensive private schools where fees for day pupils are more than £36,000 per year and boarders pay almost £50,000, according to its website.
The Prime Minister, speaking to BBC South Today during a round of regional broadcast interviews ahead of the Conservative Party conference, said: “Labour’s approach illustrates that they just don’t understand the aspiration of families like my parents who were working really hard.
“They wanted to do something for their kids that they thought would make a difference to them. Labour’s approach to that is to clamp down on it.
“They don’t understand the aspiration that people have to provide a better life for their kids.
“They want to punish them for that as part of some class war. I don’t think that is right.”
While he was serving as chancellor last year, the Prime Minister and his wife Akshata Murty were noted in Winchester College’s magazine as having donated £100,000 to the school where he had previously been head boy.
The donations fund bursaries for children whose parents would not otherwise be able to send them there.
Labour said that the comments showed how “out of touch” the Prime Minister was.
“The Prime Minister’s words are an insult to the aspiration families across Britain have for their children,” Ms Phillipson said.
“Yet again, he is out of touch with families and out of step with the change we need. We’re ending tax breaks for private schools to invest in excellent state education for everyone – it is up to private schools as to whether they pass that cost on.”
It comes after the headmaster of Sir Keir’s former school said he hopes the Labour leader “sees sense” and drops the plan to scrap the 20% VAT tax relief that is currently applied to school fees.
Sir Keir has insisted his party is not launching an “attack” on private schools by removing some of the tax breaks they enjoy, with Labour also planning to end the business rates relief from which independent schools benefit.
Shaun Fenton, headteacher at Sir Keir’s former school Reigate Grammar, said the Labour policy of abolishing VAT relief on school fees was “not going to help any child be better educated”.
Reigate Grammar in Surrey switched from being a state to an independent school while Sir Keir was in attendance.
Labour has said that, under arrangements made as part of the switch, Sir Keir’s family did not have to pay towards his education while he was studying there.
Mr Fenton, speaking to Times Radio, predicted the added tax would drive “thousands” of children into the state system, thereby decreasing the amount raised by it.
“Everyone knows this isn’t really going to raise any money and it’s not going to solve any education problems,” he said.
The party, citing a study by the Institute for Fiscal Studies think tank, believes changes to tax rules impacting private schools could raise as much as £1.5 billion per year.
Sir Keir, who has previously ruled out sending his own children to private school, has himself defended the VAT school fees policy.
He told BBC’s Political Thinking podcast this week that it was about ensuring state schools are “just as good” as the independent alternative.
He also argued that private schools would not have to pass the additional costs on to parents in the form of increased fees.
Labour insiders have insisted changes to charitable status had never been party policy but Ms Phillipson had previously spoken of doing so to “fund the most ambitious state school improvement plan in a generation”.
The Conservatives have accused Labour of backtracking on one of its major policies, with Chief Secretary to the Treasury John Glen saying it was having to admit that “their schools tax hike just doesn’t work”.