September 28, 2021 - 2:00pm

Keir Starmer’s announcement that Labour will pledge to end private schools’ charity status and use the tax revenue to raise £1.7 billion for state schools may sound like a good idea. After all, private schools are run like a business and should be treated as such. It is also refreshing to finally see a clear Labour policy (even if it is a rehash of one of Jeremy Corbyn’s) — I just wish it was a coherent one.

While it may make a good headline, the scheme is likely to harm more families than it will actually help. It’s also a distraction from some of the Labour’s more interesting ideas, such as improving financial education so that students are taught about pension planning, mortgages and credit scores at school.

Any tax raised by the private school proposal would probably be outweighed by the cost of educating the resultant influx of children entering the state sector. Currently, private schools educate around 600,000 children and save the government £3billion in state school costs. Taxing private schools and removing the VAT exemption would undoubtedly lead to more expensive tuition fees (and fewer scholarships and bursaries), rendering private schools even more inaccessible. The scheme would also only raise roughly £190 per child, which is hardly enough to fund “education fit for the future”. 

There is no doubt that private schools play a part in ongoing inequality in the UK, but should we not be focusing on making sure that private schools live up to their charitable status, rather than withdrawing it altogether? Over the last decade there has been a huge explosion in the number of bursaries at private schools, with the total value of scholarships and bursaries increasing by £195million since 2011. There are some amazing success stories, such as Christ’s Hospital School in West Sussex, which has become the UK’s largest bursary charity; two-thirds of pupils are on bursaries, with most paying nothing at all. Even at Eton around 20% of pupils have some sort of financial assistance (averaging a 67% reduction), with about 10% on free places, while Latymer Upper School has also pledged to offer bursaries to 300 pupils by 2024.

As a teacher at a private school, I have seen firsthand the transformative impact bursaries can have on students. I also completed the Teach First scheme at a state school in a disadvantaged area, and I know that levelling the educational playing field isn’t about dragging down the top, but raising up the bottom.

Labour’s policy feels out of touch with recent educational shifts. Private schools are making very conscious decisions — for example, waiving scholarships (too many of which go to already well-off families) in favour of bursaries, creating new fundraising initiatives and even taking out millions of pounds worth of debt to pay for access schemes — and these haven’t happened spontaneously. They are the result of public and parental pressure; changing cultural attitudes towards privilege, diversity and accessibility; and, of course, a need to justify private schools’ charitable status. Labour should try and capitalise on this positive momentum, rather than grind it to a halt.

Kristina Murkett is a freelance writer and English teacher.