Private schools 'vital' amid UK charity status row

Politicians say Labour proposal could threaten 200 schools, forcing pupils forced into state sector

HARROW, UNITED KINGDOM - SEPTEMBER 16, 2015: Pupils make their way to class at Harrow School. Harrow School is an English independent school for boys situated in the town of Harrow, in north-west London. There is evidence that there has been a school on the site since 1243, but the Harrow School of today was formally founded in 1572 by John Lyon under a Royal Charter of Elizabeth I. Harrow is one of the original ten public schools that were regulated by the Public Schools Act 1868. The School has an enrollment of around 814 boys spread across twelve boarding houses, all of whom board full-time. It remains one of the four all-boys, full-boarding schools in Britain, the others being Eton College, Radley College and Winchester College. Harrow's uniform includes straw hats, morning suits, top hats and canes. Its long line of famous alumni includes eight former British/Indian Prime Ministers including Churchill, Baldwin, Peel, and Palmerston. (Photo by Peter Dench/Getty Images Reportage)
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Private schools must retain their charitable status because they give children across Britain access to vital education, Downing Street has said.

Responding to confirmation that a future Labour government would scrap the schools' tax-free status to gain £1.7 billion in extra income, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s official spokesman highlighted the “important role” the educational institutions played.

Labour leader Keir Starmer has stated he will continue the policy proposal of former left-wing leader Jeremy Corbyn in abolishing the charity status that saves schools charging an extra 20 per cent in fees. The change would lead to fees at top schools going from £44,000 a year to £52,800. It would mean they become more reliant on attracting foreign pupils.

Most of the UK’s 2,000 private schools are registered as charities, meaning they cannot operate for profit and must show that they are creating public benefit. As many as one in ten could be in jeopardy. In addition the schools provide scholarships and bursaries to cut fees for less privileged pupils by up to 100 per cent.

“Independent schools have an important role to play by giving children further opportunities for children across the country through targeted bursaries,” No 10's spokesman said in response to a question from The National.

“By working with local state schools to share expertise, best practice and facilities, it’s an important educational service they provide.”

Labour claims the £1.7 billion in savings — other estimates put it at £3 billion — would be used to recruit 6,500 teachers, as well as give children access to mental health counsellors and career advisers.

There are currently 544,000 children being taught in the private sector, but during his budget statement earlier this month, Chancellor Jeremy Hunt stated that Labour’s charity status proposal would lead to less wealthy parents sending 90,000 pupils into the state sector.

“It would be giving with one hand and taking away with another,” he told parliament.

The majority in the Conservative cabinet were educated at private schools — Mr Hunt at Charterhouse and Mr Sunak at Winchester College — although Liz Truss was the first Tory leader to be educated in the state sector.

Mr Starmer, who also went to a fee-paying grammar school, has agreed to continue Mr Corbyn’s policy if he is elected prime minister, which on current polling looks likely.

“Labour is determined that all children, irrespective of their family income, have the chance to achieve their potential through high-quality education,” a Labour Party spokesman said.

“That's why the next Labour government will remove charitable status from private schools to fund our national excellence programme for all schools.”

Chancellor Jeremy Hunt, who was educated at Charterhouse school, makes an autumn budget statement in the House of Commons. He condemned Labour's proposal to ditch the charitable status for private schools. AFP

Alistair Campbell, former prime minister Tony Blair’s chief adviser, suggested that having more wealthy children in state schools would bring up their standards.

“My argument is that, if the better-off in Britain, not to mention senior politicians, used state schools, the pressure on government to improve education for the many, not the few, would grow,” he said.

But Julie Robinson, chief executive of the Independent Schools Council, condemned the proposal.

“Ultimately, the policy would threaten the survival of the smallest independent schools, which operate on tight margins and without large endowments,” she said.

Former education secretary Nadhim Zahawi, currently Conservative Party chairman, argued that the plan would ultimately cost the taxpayer more.

“I saw some of the analysis done on this — that you will not increase the tax take for the exchequer,” he said.

“Many parents will come out of the independent sector and would add to the number of children that we will need to accommodate in the state sector.”

Updated: November 28, 2022, 10:28 PM