Next Government should support independent schools, not tax them

Children at Newcastle School for Boys
-Credit: (Image: Newcastle School for Boys)

In a just over a week’s time, Labour is very likely to be celebrating an election victory and forming a Government with a sizeable majority.

One of their headline pledges is to introduce VAT on school fees. Like Labour, I want to see a well-funded state education system. But like many, I am also concerned that a tax on children will be damaging to state and independent education alike.

Labour’s aim is the same as any teacher’s: the best possible education for every child. But there is a real risk that a misunderstanding of what independent schools do, what they look like and who uses them will lead to a policy approach that has unintended consequences.

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So before pressing ahead to enact their manifesto pledge to charge VAT on independent school fees, I would urge Sir Keir Starmer and Bridget Phillipson, who has been shadow education secretary, to visit Newcastle School for Boys and other similar independent schools across the country. This will help them gain a genuine understanding of the important role they play within the UK’s educational system. There are approximately 1,400 independent schools in the UK educating over half a million children. The average size of these schools is just under 300 pupils.

I would introduce them to our children, families and staff; show them that our facilities are modest and do not fulfil the stereotype regularly peddled in the media.

David Tickner, headmaster at Newcastle School for Boys
David Tickner, headmaster at Newcastle School for Boys -Credit:handout

No swimming pool. No theatre. No stables. Just an honest, close-knit community of hardworking, tax-paying families and staff committed to educate and care for our pupils. It seems strange that any political party would seek to introduce a tax on such a group.

We have 390 pupils aged from 3 to 18. Around a quarter of them have additional educational or other needs that are not supported by an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP). Many of our families’ decisions to attend Newcastle School for Boys are informed by the excellence of our support for those children with additional needs who would struggle in some of the very large local academies.

Our parents are typically public sector workers, professionals or self-employed. Many of them – having already paid, through their income and other taxes, for a state education – make considerable sacrifices to send their children to us. Others are in receipt of means-tested bursaries or other forms of financial assistance as we seek to make our education as widely accessible as we possibly can.

As a registered charity, we operate on narrow margins. Where small annual surpluses can be achieved, these are invested back in our children’s education. Neither the school nor our parents will be able to sustain a 20% VAT charge.

Under Labour’s plans for independent schools, there will be casualties. The first will be children whose parents will no longer be able to afford fees that many schools will have to pass on. Those children will be forced to leave – many at a crucial stage of their education – their friends, their teachers, their schools. These children have already suffered significant disruption to their education during Covid.

Research undertaken by the Independent Schools Council (ISC) suggests this exodus could happen quite quickly for up to 20% of pupils – that’s over 100,000 children – with more to follow over time. I fear the North East may suffer more than some other regions.

Where will these children go? This will depend on the availability of state school places in their catchment area. Our nearest state secondary and primary schools are mostly already oversubscribed. Children will need to go further afield, away from their friends, compounding their distress and presenting travel complications for working parents.

Labour’s manifesto suggests that their tax on children at independent schools would raise £1.5bn. This might seem a large number but represents only about 1.3% of current public spending on education in the UK.

However, as independent sector pupil numbers fall under the weight of VAT and its schools shrink or even close, that £1.5bn will reduce. Even if there were space for them, more pupils in the state sector with less revenue to support them simply doesn’t add up – even allowing for falling birth rates.

Like most independent schools, we work hard in with our local state school partners to provide additional opportunities for children and families. This academic year, our school has provided academic, musical and sporting opportunities for nearly 500 children across 27 different local state schools. A 20% increase in our cost base and/or a reduction in pupil numbers and income would severely challenge our ability to continue to undertake this important partnership work.

The independent school heads I speak with locally and beyond do not promote or seek to perpetuate elitism or to serve only the wealthiest. We want to continue to meet the needs of our children, their families and our communities and to play our role in sustaining an excellent education for all children.

I hope that ambition will be shared by our next Government and delivered through policies informed by a genuine understanding of the valuable role played by independent schools in its fulfilment.