UK's gilded private schools should go back to basics after Labour tax raid

Soaring cost of education underlines how far private schools have strayed from their middle-class origins

Private school fees in the UK have risen out of step with prices, despite the high cost for parents. PA
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Ever since British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak called the UK general election, there has been one topic of conversation among the nation’s wealthier folk: Labour’s plan to impose VAT on school fees.

Even before Mr Sunak stood in the pouring rain and made his announcement, there was chat. Now the vote is upon us and Keir Starmer’s party is far ahead in the polls, that talk has hardened.

Some sections of the media have gone into overdrive. Perish the thought that the sons and daughters of the paper’s executives are at private school.

After all, it can’t be the readers that are affected or not many of them anyway, since the numbers at such places are small – just 5.9 per cent of children at school in the UK (it speaks volumes about the undoubted influence they have on British public life that the tally is so surprisingly low).

It’s an eye-catching policy, one that is divisive, granted, but nevertheless you could be forgiven for supposing it’s the biggest issue of our time. As for the headlines – "Labour’s attack on private schools is a sinister threat to democracy itself" is one favourite.

If there is one villain in this piece it is not the parents for choosing to send their children to schools with the biggest resources and lowest teacher to pupil ratios. It is the schools themselves that have ruthlessly exploited their parents’ angst.

Their scaremongering, in tune with the press headlines, has been apocalyptic. One claim was that 224,000 children would leave for the state sector. That’s almost half of those currently at private school.

Another was that schools galore would shut. Already, two small schools have closed for good – although the VAT "raid" cannot be responsible. How could it be? Labour is not in charge, yet, and the tax is not likely to come in until the academic year 2025/26, next September, at the earliest.

Open the personal finance pages and there is advice galore on how to offset the rise, not only from the newspapers themselves but from law firms, accountants and wealth managers who seem to have set up specialist crack units.

As for the suggestions, they tend to be to coalesce around pay the fees in advance or get a grandparent to cough up.

These are people who are flapping, panicking, it’s all hands to the lifeboats, chaps. The tales keep coming: the parents who have scrimped and made sacrifices to provide their loved ones with the best opportunity and are now going to be denied; the father whose daughter requires special needs and he pays because the state can’t cater for her. On it goes. Truly, the end of the world is upon us.

At the risk of provoking social ostracisation I will stick my neck out: it is only right that the VAT exemption is ended and I say that as someone who educated four of my five children privately.

Heavens, even Michael Gove, when he was education secretary, said the same, claiming it “effectively allows the wealthiest people to buy a prestige service at a 20 per cent discount”.

Is it fair? Not on the basis that VAT is not a progressive tax, that everyone pays regardless of their means. Arguably that makes it unfair. But then, school fees will be no different from the countless other items that attract the same, flat charge.

Is it morally right? Yes. Long gone are the days when these establishments were charities set up to educate the poor. They may still offer some scholarships, but their target, make no mistake, is the richest tier in society, those who can afford their charges.

And they can afford them. The same parents who are ranting about Labour’s ideological vendetta (which is what it is, but no harm in that if you’re on the left) have swallowed repeated increases, far beyond the annual rate of inflation. They gnash their teeth and moan. But they pay up.

My youngest daughter has been at her secondary school six years. When she started, the fees were £1,500 a term, now they’re £1,900. We’ve received the usual missive warning us to expect a further hefty leap in September – and this, don’t forget, is well before Labour’s levy kicks in.

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In fact, in their typically cynical manner, the schools are getting in ahead of Mr Starmer and putting up the fees way above the Retail Prices Index. No change there. They’ve been doing that for years.

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One private school pays its principal a basic £300,000 a year, the sort of sum a state head working in much tougher circumstances can only dream about. Its yearly marketing budget is £1 million. Still, the parents pay.

Indeed, that is one of the odd aspects of private education, how similar the schools are – in their buildings, grounds, equipment, teachers.

The same school has international branches; as for facilities there is nothing it does not supply. Its campus is a veritable tour de force, offering every conceivable service.

In this, it is not very different from others. Indeed, that is one of the odd aspects of private education, how similar the schools are – in their buildings, grounds, equipment, teachers. Even their fees are within touching distance of each other. It’s strange, how, with the exception of one or two outliers, they are so close.

They’ve become ever slicker in approach. Oxbridge is not the shoo-in it once was, so they’ve developed lines into the US universities. Their publicity material is glossy and beautifully produced, full of gorgeous photographs and smart slogans – again no expense is spared.

What’s happened is that they have moved far beyond their origins and target audience. Once, their parents comprised mostly lawyers, doctors, accountants – the core middle class. Not any more, as they’ve tapped into a ready, multinational pool of richer banking, financial services, business, property and tech types. In the process, they’ve forgotten who they are and who they served.

For these new customers, 20 per cent is nothing – not where their children are concerned. If Labour succeeds, VAT will be introduced, parents will scream, but it will be paid. Morality will be reinforced and, provided the yawning gap between state and fee-paying exists, which it will, the private schools, by and large will continue on their same gilded path.

Some children might leave but not many and they will be replaced. The storm will blow over, democracy will survive.

Published: June 06, 2024, 8:54 AM