‘My husband might die for this country, yet Starmer is insulting us with his school fees tax’

Keir Starmer
Keir Starmer

Holly Pope* is absolutely furious. And in total despair – about what on earth she’s going to tell her daughter Emily if Labour gets into power in July.

Two years ago, Holly, 36, and her husband, Mike, 38, a soldier in the British Army, made the difficult decision to send Emily, then aged nine, to boarding school.

Emily is autistic, and had already moved school four times in her short life – because Mike’s job means the family has to relocate every two to three years.

“She couldn’t cope with all the changes,” explains Holly. “She struggled with moving around; she struggled to fit in. Boarding has been the making of her. She’s a different child.

She gets the support she needs. We’ve been posted [moved to a different job] since she started boarding and it was the first move she hasn’t been fussed by. She said ‘Mummy, all my friends are at school, so it doesn’t matter.’

“We promised this would be her forever school and she would never have to move again. We haven’t discussed it with her yet. I’m hoping and praying we’ll never have to.”

Holly can’t give me her real name, because the family lives where her husband is currently serving, in Northern Ireland, where British soldiers still face a very real threat to their safety.

The financial reality of military parenthood

Because of the demands of Mike’s job – for which he gets paid £34,000 a year as a lance corporal – Holly works part-time, flexible hours from home, at minimum wage.

“We can’t afford the cost of holiday childcare on top of school fees. What would I do with three kids all summer if I worked more hours?” she asks. “The costs would be more than I could possibly earn.”

And so the family are forced to claim Universal Credit to supplement their low income. They drive a 13-year-old car with more than 200,000 miles on the clock and a driver’s side window that doesn’t open. They buy own-brand groceries. They don’t go on holiday.

They also have to find more than £3,500 a year to pay for Emily’s school, because the British military’s continuity of education allowance (CEA) rules, which allow families such as Holly and Mike’s to access a stable education for their children, require families to pay a minimum of 10 per cent of a child’s school fees.

The rest is funded by CEA payments from the Ministry of Defence, up to a cap of £6,998 a term for junior schools and £8,692 a term at a senior level.

Emily’s school costs £12,065 a term, and requires Holly and Mike to pay the 10 per cent plus £350 per term.

From September, Emily will be in the senior part of her school, where the fees jump significantly – but Holly and Mike will still have to find the 10 per cent, plus the top-up.

Then there’s the money they have to find on top of that for flights to and from Northern Ireland for school holidays – the military covers three flights a year, but there are six school holidays.

Taxis alone to and from the airport, which are £50 each way, and £65 on Sundays. When Emily has an exeat weekend (of which there are four a year), Holly and Mike pay a host family in England £60 a day to look after her, as they have no family support and it’s cheaper than paying for another set of return flights.

“We are not,” says Holly with massive understatement, “an affluent family. Keir Starmer said something recently about how if you work hard enough you can afford it. Actually, my husband and I work really hard to pay for what we have.

“We can’t do any more – and he might have to die for his country. I wrote to Keir Starmer to tell him about our situation, but I got no reply. I find it really insulting.”

Labour’s proposal to make private schools pay 20 per cent VAT should they be elected next month is causing sleepless nights for parents across the country.

Boarding school gives military children stability

For many military families, however, the situation is even more terrifying, given the particular lack of choice that they face. Ask almost any soldier, sailor or airman if they know where they and their family are going to be living this time next year and a large proportion of them will tell you that they haven’t a clue.

Army personnel, in particular, are subject to job changes every 18 months or so – and each time, the entire family will pack up and move to a new home they’ve never seen before.

Because posting orders generally come well before an address, and because you can’t apply for a school place until you have an address to apply from, many military families struggle to find school places for their children.

Many families, after their fifth or sixth move, plump – reluctantly – for boarding school, with which the military will help with fees.

The alternative has a massive effect on the child: a 2020 report produced by the Naval Children’s Charity found that the more times a military child moves, the worse the impact on academic performance.

It drew on official data from 2013 which showed that 28 per cent of service children had moved schools seven or more times.

One mother with a military spouse says that when her family was returned to the UK after a posting to the United States, the summer before her eldest child was due to start year six, she was told by the local authority that there was not a single year-six place available in the entire borough for her daughter. She and her husband ended up taking CEA and sending her to boarding school, because they had no other choice.

A jump of 20 per cent on top of what they’re already struggling, in many cases, to pay, will put their child’s school fees well out of reach for people like Holly and Mike.

“There’s an assumption that CEA is just for officers, but that’s not true,” says one anonymous senior officer, who has two children in boarding school (which they entered as an alternative to going to three schools in two years) under the system.

Indeed, the figures bear it out. There are currently 2,800 serving personnel across all three services who claim CEA for 4,147 service children.

Of those, 587 (or 14 per cent) are in state boarding school; the remaining 86 per cent attend independent schools, at a total cost of £84.6 million – representing 0.16 per cent of overall defence spending in 2022-23.

And while the highest number of claimants are indeed at lieutenant colonel level, the second highest proportion of claimants are lance corporal equivalents, like Mike.

Their pay, meanwhile, has fallen in real terms in recent years, while boarding school fees have gone up – by an average of 9 per cent this year, according to research by the Independent Schools Council.

Average boarding costs now sit at more than £14,000 per term – which means that, although helpful, in many cases CEA – which has not risen in line with fees – still leaves a significant shortfall.

The consequences of Labour’s private school tax raid

Nevertheless, military families scrimp and save to make the numbers add up – because otherwise, as the anonymous officer puts it, “either the child has to move every two years or the family split up”.

Elizabeth McManus’s* husband Tom is one such person. He joined the RAF when he was 17; he’s now 53 and has another seven years to serve.

Their twins, now 14, have been boarding since they were eight and the family have already found it a huge jump financially going from prep to senior. “We’d planned, done our research and picked a school that did a deal for military children,” says Elizabeth.

“The kids worked hard and got scholarships. We thought we’d be OK and then this happens… We’re due to be posted again in November which, if we had to move them, would make it their fifth school in six years.”

Those who feel they have no choice but to stay with their existing school find themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place. “I haven’t actually enquired what the difference would be [under Labour] because I’m burying my head in the sand,” says Jane Carmichael, an Army wife with three daughters.

Jane Carmichael, an Army wife, sends her children to boarding school as it offers them the stability of being in one place
Jane Carmichael, an Army wife, sends her children to boarding school as it offers them the stability of being in one place - Clara Molden

“I’m worrying enough already about how we’re going to afford the fees for three of them already (her youngest daughter, aged nine, will join her elder sisters at boarding school next term).

“I know it’s a bit ‘world’s tiniest violin’, but I’ve been struggling to work for the best part of three years because I’ve got so many holes in my CV due to all the moves.

“I’ve only just got a job – it’s taken me five months and seven interviews to find something that gets me back on something like a career path.”

“But,” she says, “We do this for our partners – you do it because the job demands it. It’s a very difficult choice and every time the children go back [to school] it breaks my heart. For us as a couple, being together takes more work than always loving our children does, so we choose to give them the continuity of being in one place, with the same friends and teachers while we move locations.

“My husband spent months abroad [deployed] when the children were tiny; the experience affected him and them for a long time on his return.”

As for what it says about Labour and Starmer’s attitude to the military, “He doesn’t care about this small section of us who are being battered by this,” says Tracey Clifford, 54, the wife of a soldier who’s served 30 years.

The couple initially sent their son to a private day school and lived apart after the two state schools at either end of their road in Oldham said they had no place for him; when Tracey’s husband was promoted to being an officer and extended his commission, they decided they didn’t want to be apart for another decade and took CEA to send their son to boarding school.

Labour says the VAT levied on private school fees will help to fund more than 6,500 new teachers in the state sector. A spokesman says: “Independent schools have raised fees above inflation for well over a decade and do not have to pass Labour’s proposed change onto parents.”

But, Clifford says bitterly, “They [Oldham is run by a Labour council] didn’t give him a state school place. And now they’re saying I have to pay for state school teachers. I was born on a council estate in poverty. My husband has fought for his country. We’re not asking for sympathy, we just want our son to have a stable education.”

They will manage to get through, she says, but she is now increasingly keen on her son following the many pupils at his school who go to university in the United States.

“I actually don’t want him to stay in this country. I want him to give his taxes to another country – because the only reason he’s going to get a good job is because of us.

“I don’t feel like this country is for people like us anymore. It’s horrible.”