The flawed proposal to impose VAT on independent school fees is an ideologically motivated attack upon parental aspiration

    Ideological opposition to the independent sector often develops from a sincere and laudable desire to ensure that all children have the opportunity to access an outstanding quality of education. Therefore, it is disappointing that the tone of debate within the public sphere draws so heavily upon dogmatic generalisations and lazy stereotypes. It is a discourse which is repetitious and lacking in nuance. Therefore I am hesitant to contribute to a debate which has arguably exhausted itself. It is perfectly conceivable that I am part of ‘the problem’ and I accept that people may reasonably judge my contribution to be partisan and lacking in nuance. 

   There are those who attack the independent sector for not agreeing a coherent ‘position’ with regards to the imposition of VAT but this is perhaps a little unfair given that we have never pretended to be a monolithic and indivisible entity. We are a cheerfully diverse and complex sector. Whilst some favour a robustly combative approach, others have resigned themselves to the inevitable and feel that a strategy of appeasement and relationship building is by far the most sensible option. In fairness, representative bodies such as HMC and ISC are trying their very best to open a constructive dialogue with the Labour Party whilst continuing to highlight the damaging implications of the policy itself.

    Of course, Starmer claims that the Labour Party has come a long way since 2019 and it is the case that, increasingly, they look like a party ready for power. Corbyn is gone and Momentum has, well, lost its momentum. The hard left appears chastened and, thankfully, the scourge of antisemitism has been largely eradicated from the party. Starmer is a pragmatic centrist in the mould of Brown and Blair. He is statesmanlike and his wide appeal is based partly upon his ability to exude a sense of principled probity and stable leadership. After the volatility of the Johnson years and the detached and technocratic style of Sunak’s leadership, Starmer and his top team offer the hope of stability and economic growth. Though not tested in office, the likes of Wes Streeting and Rachel Reeves seem both impressive and relatable. Starmer is keen to remind us that he is quite prepared to be ruthless. 

    Given that Labour is likely to win a landslide victory, one might reasonably question why they feel the need to punish fee-paying parents? After all, VAT is a regressive form of taxation that will have very little impact on very rich parents and/or wealthy schools. The 2018 Baines Cutler report suggested that it is a policy that will cost the Treasury £400 million a year. By contrast, the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) suggests that the removal of tax exemptions will raise between £1.3 and £1.5 billion a year. In reality, even if the policy does raise £1.5 billion pounds a year (which seems extremely unlikely), this would constitute less than 1% of current annual public expenditure on state education (which stands at £116 billion). The grandiloquent claims that the Labour Party has made for how this money is going to be spent defies credibility. It is a sum which is nowhere near enough to solve the multitude of problems for which the money has been earmarked. The Labour Party could commit more money to schools by any of a number of other means. After all, adding VAT on School fees will increase UK annual tax receipts by just 0.01%.

 It is difficult to escape the conclusion that this is a totemic hypothecated tax transfer that is designed to bolster Starmer’s socialist credentials and buy political capital with those elements of the Labour Party that voted to abolish the private sector in 2019. Whilst Starmer recently insisted that he wants private schools to ‘thrive’, his beleaguered deputy, Angela Rayner, is perfectly frank in her view that private schools are engines of inequality. In her 2019 conference speech, she called for the establishment of a commission to oversee the integration of private schools into the state sector. Delegates at the same conference voted to abolish private schools and redistribute their assets to the state sector. One campaign organiser delightedly enthused that: 

‘This is a really positive moment for the Labour Party because it’s the strongest commitment that the party has made to deal with the problem of private schools in a very long time. It’s a really big victory for the left’. 

     Of course, Starmer is sensitive to charges of hypocrisy given that he himself had the privilege of attending Reigate Grammar School, a highly selective school which became private during his time as a pupil. He tends to present as a paid up member of the metropolitan elite who is probably more at home in Islington than Ipswich. There is nothing wrong with this but he has historically struggled to resonate outside the South East. 

   You may notice that he talks about his parents a good deal and there is no doubt that he is at his most relatable when he reflects upon their formative influence upon his life. Indeed, he is at his most compelling when he talks about his mother’s work as a nurse in the NHS and her courageous battle against Still’s disease. Conversely, he is at his least compelling when he talks about the fact that his father worked in a factory and manufactured tools. I do not doubt that his father worked extremely hard and whether or not he owned the factory or not should be of little importance. Starmer is an enormously successful and wealthy individual who benefitted from a stable family home and an outstanding education. Few of us would begrudge him the success that he has achieved. 

   I do not doubt that Starmer experienced considerable hardship during his childhood and yet it is clear that he was also privileged in many respects. It always strikes me as absurdly hypocritical that politicians of all persuasions tend to spend a good deal of time polishing their own autobiographical narratives whilst viewing the lived experiences of individuals who hold positions contrary to their own as an unwelcome and irrelevant distraction from their own ideological aims.

     I had an enormously privileged childhood for the simple fact that I had access to a fantastic quality of education and a secure home life. However, I spent a good deal of the first year of my life in the care of Surrey Social Services (Starmer’s home county) and I was adopted at the age of ten months. My father died when I had just turned six and so I grew up in a single-parent family. We were not poor but nor were we well off. Like Starmer, I was educated at a private school for a number of years but this was only possible because I benefited from a government-funded assisted place. In the Sixth Form, I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to attend the local state grammar school. None of my grandparents, uncles or aunts went to university and none of them had stayed at school beyond the age of sixteen. Experience of higher education was the exception within our family and certainly not the norm. My father joined the RAF upon leaving school and went to university as a mature student. Both my parents came from working-class backgrounds but we never talked about class in our family – it was just not a thing. Whilst we were always encouraged to work hard, there was never a sense in which we measured someone’s worth by their qualifications, choice of career or financial status. Such snobbery has never had a place in our family. We were always encouraged to work hard and to focus upon where people were going and not where they had come from. 

   Does any of this matter? I would imagine that there are other independent school heads who have had similar experiences to mine and grimace like I do when those on the Left attempt to stereotype all private schools as bastions of wealth and privilege. My background is unremarkable. Life is complex and few of us are in a position to judge the degree to which those around us are truly ‘privileged’. Those of us who support children pastorally know that it is a grotesque conceit to imagine that all children who attend private schools are privileged. It is a position that can only be adopted by those who have no interest in the lived experiences of the young people in our midst. 

     There is no reason why someone who started life in social care should not become the head of an independent school. Similarly, there is no reason why the son of a toolmaker should not become our next prime minister. There is much more that the independent sector can do to provide opportunities for social mobility. It is a shame that so much of the rhetoric that characterises this debate is designed to promote disharmony, social resentment and a binary interpretation of a sector which is diverse and has so much to offer. 

   There are many factors that impact upon our access to educational opportunities – such as geographical location, catchment areas, familial aspirations and attendant levels of cultural capital. The Labour Party’s position on VAT is somewhat obscure insomuch as education is not vatable within the EU nor is it vatable in most other countries in the world. If VAT is to be imposed on school fees then the Labour Party will have chosen to tax parental choice and tax aspiration and this has implications that go well beyond the independent sector.

Jeremy Quartermain
Headmaster of Rossall School