Why Labour’s Plans To End Tax Breaks For Private Schools Won’t Work

Multicolour school lockers

Gillian Keegan is correct to criticise Labour’s plans to raise VAT on private schools, but not for the reasons you think. Labour’s plans to increase the VAT on independent school fees to tackle educational inequality has entered the national conversation once again. Secretary of State for Education, Gillian Keegan, has criticised opposition plans, describing them as ‘the politics of envy’, and likened the cost of independent school fees to ‘just that of a family holiday’. 

Whilst I believe Keegan’s comments offer a completely reductionist view of our two-tiered and deeply unfair education system, watching her speaking and reading the analysis of Labour’s plans in the media, I can’t help but think the Secretary of State is right to criticise the policy; but not for the reasons she suggests. 

At a time when the cost of living crisis is rife and inequality is stark, Labour is absolutely right to want to level the educational playing field, but the question is, how can this best be done? 

The Problem With Independent Schools

There is little doubt that independent schools form one of the greatest barriers to equality and social mobility in the UK. Whilst less than 7% of the UK population have attended independent schools, their alumni dominate the top universities and professions making up 65% of senior judges, 52% of diplomats and 44% of journalists. As a state-educated student at a Russell Group university, the overrepresentation of privately educated students is obvious to me, with more than 40% of my peers having attended independent schools. 

The overrepresentation of independent school alumni can be explained predominantly by the far larger budgets independent schools have per pupil, which results in smaller class sizes, greater resources, increased extracurricular opportunities, and better facilities. The syphoning off of children whose parents can afford to pay average fees of £14,000 a year results in privately educated pupils also having access to a network of professional connections that children in the state sector with a more diverse range of socio-economic backgrounds don’t have access to. 

Labour’s Proposal

Labour’s plans to end the tax breaks for private schools and increase VAT in schools fees by 20% has opened up the debate about how we best reduce the inequalities that independent schools create. The Institute for Fiscal Studies recently found that Labour’s plans would generate around £1.5 billion in revenue. On the surface, this proposal appears to offer a step in the right direction toward levelling the playing field, with the revenue generated being reinvested into state education and a greater number of children now being sent to state schools. 

The proposal, however, doesn’t go far enough and inadvertently will create more problems than it solves. Raising VAT on school fees will inevitably make private education more expensive, meaning fewer will be able to afford it.  This will leave parents who ordinarily would have paid for private education, sending their children to already high-performing state schools by moving to areas with better schools or paying for private tuition. One unequal education system will be replaced with another, where only wealthy parents, who can afford to live in places with already good schools, will fuel gentrification and displace local people. 

The Only Solution

For policies such as raising the VAT on school fees, or even abolishing independent schools altogether to achieve their desired outcome of increased educational equality, the government must first invest in state schools across the length and breadth of the UK to create a consistent standard of top quality education that replicates the standard of education currently delivered by the independent sector. 

Investment in staffing, facilities, extracurricular activities, sports and food for ALL children must become the norm for state schools. If all state schools are able to compete with independent schools on the quality of education and the ability for young people to thrive, the choice of where to send your child to school becomes simpler. 

Schools such as Brampton Manor in London, which now sends more students to Oxbridge than Eton, is a perfect example of what happens when you invest in a school even in an area with high levels of deprivation. The funding and investment, however, must be equal across the nation to create a consistent standard of education, mitigating and preventing the movement of parents to areas with better schools.

To achieve this educational equality, years of pay cuts and a lack of respect for teachers, not to mention the slashing of school budgets must be reversed. Investing in our young people and the education system as a whole will reduce inequality, support economic growth and most of all, place value on one of the most important assets our nation has – its young people.

Words by Lucy Frewin

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