Labour’s proposal to make school fees subject to VAT to fund reforms to state schooling continues to evoke strong feelings. Yet the discourse around this policy has been almost entirely fiscal, ignoring the impact on children who are currently thriving (in happy ignorance of this debate) within independent schools.
The independent sector educates 620,000 children in the UK – you probably know some of them. They attend 2,500 schools, whose median average size is under 300 pupils and which serve a customer base as diverse as the country, with motivations just as differing. There are some storied names among those 2,500, but overwhelmingly these are small, tightly-budgeted schools.
The IFS’s recent report makes the conservative estimate that 40,000 children will be directly impacted by Labour’s proposals. Other, more severe projections exist; the IFS’ is merely the best-case. And we know how those go.
Let’s be clear about what that means: after the imposition of 20 per cent VAT, the parents of at minimum 40,000 children will no longer be able to afford their school’s fee and the child will be forced to leave, with all the social and psychological upheaval this suggests, served with a slice of financial shame on the side.
Labour’s position is that these children will instead access places at high-performing local state school and will quickly integrate, making new friends and suffering no educational penalty. This misses the crucial nuance that the children we’re talking about are relatively vulnerable and unlikely to avoid being enduringly affected.
They are the children of the least well-off customers of independent schools (if they weren’t, they wouldn’t be the victims of affordability). Their parents are often characterised as ‘sacrificers’ because they have made the decision to spend their money on an independent education in preference to other things – taking fewer holidays, driving older cars, owning smaller houses. They are also often first-time customers: hard-working, fully-employed, burdensomely-mortgaged, already heavily-taxed contributors to society – hardly scions of privilege. Ironically, they are emblematic of the social mobility that Labour has stood for since its inception.
And these parents will – reluctantly, slowly, at the point least damaging to their child – find a double-digit price hike something that they simply can’t afford. These minor tragedies will unfold unseen: quiet decisions made in the privacy of living rooms and around kitchen tables. Most of us will remain oblivious to what will be a significant impact on thousands of childhoods.
The children we’re talking about, again almost by definition, do not fit the stereotype of an independent school pupil, because of the self-selecting nature of the ‘sacrificing’ customer who has made this difficult lifestyle compromise. They’re buying this product because in their view – and whose better? – their child needs what an independent school offers and that can’t be had for free, elsewhere.
This may be because of a complex educational need; a sporting talent; a religious or social conviction. Perhaps they’ve experienced severe bullying, or maybe it’s down to the broad sporting, cultural and nurturing offer that’s perceived as missing in the state sector.
Whatever the reason, it’s an informed choice made in the best interest of their child, not an assumed rite of passage towards guaranteed success in life. These 40,000 future victims of VAT aren’t in an independent school because of tradition or snobbery, they’re there because their parents are convinced it’s the best place for them and are prepared to give up one or more of the trappings of success that few of us would lightly surrender.
The inevitable consequence of applying VAT to fees will be that the most vulnerable children, least protected by the privilege of their parents’ social and cultural capital, will be the very ones that the policy inadvertently targets.
For schools whose income relies even to a marginal extent on hard-pushed parents, this could be the trigger in a wider collapse, accelerated by TPS contribution hikes and state-sector pay rises. Those with the fewest pupils, on the more accessible end of the price range, the kind of school loved by their community but woefully underequipped to ride out this maelstrom, will close.
The repercussive effect could see the number of children affected mushroom well beyond 40,000. The projected manageable trickle of movers to local state schools could become a problematic surge, both in-year and in terms of competition for places at high-performing schools at transition points.
It’s not too late for a rethink of the VAT-on-fees policy so that it doesn’t have the unintended (but not unforeseen) consequence of harming the education of those children least able to cope. There’s an urgent need to engage with the sector to help curb the worst outcomes. There is a way to do it better – on behalf of the many pupils this will affect, I urge Labour to find it.