by Kristina Murkett
Tuesday, 28
September 2021
Debate
14:00

Penalising private schools will help no one

Labour's latest policy announcement will hurt the very children it aims to help
by Kristina Murkett
Floreat Etona. Credit: Getty

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.

Join the discussion


  • But he’s not ‘spot on’. As Colin Elliott states above, vast majority of private schools are non-profit making charities. So paying private school fees are not ‘tax dodging’. They are set up to provide an education to those children whose families chose to make a sacrifice and pay fees, rather than use taxpayer funded state schools.
    Sadly the Labour parties blind socialism sees it propose spending £3billion to ‘save’ £1.7bn. Diane Abbott must have done the sums on this policy. Labour & it’s far left teaching union supporters hate private education because it cannot be controlled and dumbed down by them.

  • I know people who were not well off who sent their children to public school and made sacrifices to do so. They made the decision because of the appalling standard of the state school.
    There is little or nothing that can be done to improve the standard of state schools since they are run primarily with the interests of the teaching staff at heart and the education establishment is fundamentally left wing.
    Also how well a child succeeds essentially depends on parental expectation and support. if the parents do not give a toss then no amount of additional spending is going to make a difference and this is something that the left cannot accept.

  • You are not funding it. School fees are paid out of taxed income and sending children a private school saves the state of the cost of educating them. Also, unless you earn more than £48K pa you are a net recipient of the state’s largess and are not funding anything.
    I did not go to public school and neither do my children

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