Labour’s class war on private education could backfire
With our two main political parties bumping into each other on the centre ground, voters could be forgiven for finding the debate about the alternative policies on offer uninspiring. Labour’s decision to attack independent schools is a noteworthy exception. Sir Keir Starmer has proposed to abolish their charitable status.
Officially the justification is that it would raise more tax revenue — an estimate has been put forward of £1.7 billion of extra VAT on school fees and the ending of exemptions on Business Rates. The real reason is political, of course. It is a bit of old-fashioned class war to gee up the comrades.
Abolishing charitable status for private education fits with copying the New Labour strategy from a generation earlier. That strategy swept Tony Blair to power in a landslide victory in 1997. Mostly the pitch was to offer Conservative policies. Rather than seeking to convert Conservatives to socialism, it was to show Conservatives they could still have what they wanted under a Labour Government.
So there was reassurance that tax would not increase, wealth and aspiration would be celebrated, defence would be strong, crime would be toughly punished. The settlement of the Thatcher era would be largely maintained: trade union reforms and privatisation would not be reversed. Liberalisation measures that she had introduced — such as the abolition of exchange controls and controls on wages, prices, rents and dividends — were also accepted.
But to avoid alienating socialist voters the abolition of hereditary peerages and a ban on hunting were included. After four election defeats (then and now), tribal Labour voters will put up with almost any compromise to get the Tories out. But they do need one or two symbolic policies retained that they really believe in. Bashing independent schools will do nicely. It is something they are passionate about — think how much they complained about David Cameron and Boris Johnson having been to Eton.
Socialists believe that paying school fees is morally wrong. They even think this when doing it themselves, which many do. It gives them agonies of guilt: an awkward subject at many an Islington dinner party.
There are still some risks, though. Lots of people went hunting before 1997 (and still do, as the legislation was ineffective). They are not just aristocrats. But they are overwhelmingly people who live and vote in the countryside. Even during the Blair landslides the rural constituencies stuck with the Conservatives. So Labour could afford to ignore their protests.
Seven per cent of children are at independent schools. That is a small minority, but not a tiny one. It amounts to over half a million children: 544,316 to be exact, according to the latest census from the Independent Schools Council, which claims this is a record number. Their parents have votes, so do their grandparents and their godparents — also, as Gilbert and Sullivan put it, “their sisters, and their cousins, and their aunts”. Some of these indignant relatives may inconveniently live in marginal seats.
How much traction the issue gets partly depends on how vigorously the “sector” fights back. It has its lobby groups, notably the Independent Schools Council. Will they agree not to complain in return for some discreet assurances that the proposals will be watered down? An exemption here, a delay there? Or will they come out fighting?
A political campaign could be quite potent. Protest rallies, advertising campaigns and so on. One obvious point is that the current arrangement of charitable status means that over 150,000 places at independent schools are provided for free, or at a discount, for bright children whose parents are not rich enough to pay the full amount. This is the category that would be worst hit by Labour changing the schools from charities into businesses. In future, most of those children would have to go to state schools — increasing the cost to the taxpayer. What about some videos on social media with pupils (and former pupils) talking about what a transformational opportunity winning a bursary proved to be for them?
Some might do fine with a good state school. Their parents might move next door to a comprehensive that tops the league tables. Or, in some parts of the country, pay private tutors to get the child into a grammar school. But this would mean that others would miss out on places at these schools, which are of course already oversubscribed. That would give another category of voters a motive to oppose Labour’s policy.
What if the independent schools did something the Conservatives are too feeble to do and took on the moral argument? If they made the case for freedom of choice? That a move towards a state monopoly in education would be undesirable for the country, both in principle and in practice?
Still, let us suppose that, with their huge opinion poll lead, Labour wins the election and carries out the change. One unexpected consequence, for both friends and foes of their policy, might be that the independent sector expands. Might the schools turn out to do better as businesses than charities? Around 1,000 of the 2,300 independent schools in this country already operate as businesses — charging VAT and so on. So we already know it is possible for them to survive. But might such schools actually be spurred on to expand?
Sir Chris Woodhead, the former Chief Inspector of Ofsted, who died in 2015, was also chairman of Cognita, a company with a chain of independent schools. Back in 2008 he argued as follows: “When there is no profit motive there is no incentive to expand capacity. The idea that a school might make a profit is dismissed with moral disdain. Surpluses, which could achieve respectable returns if reinvested, are used to build ever more elaborate facilities that entrench the elite nature of the institution. Pupils whose parents can pay inhabit a state-of-the-art country club; everyone else remains locked on the wrong side of the gates. A sensible government would abolish charitable status so all independent schools would operate within a normal taxation regime, with incentives to expand as businesses.”
Cognita is still going strong, with 40 schools in England and Wales and another 60 in the rest of the world. The Starmer Terror might see some traditional private schools struggle, but rather than close, be taken over by Cognita or one of its rivals — then raise some capital for a new wing and launch a marketing drive.
The great struggle in opening a new school is finding a site. The planning process is obstructive. Perhaps under a Labour Government we might see Conservative local authorities rediscovering their principles and becoming more positive about enabling new independent schools to open. It would be a popular approach to adopt.
What an irony it might be if a Labour Government setting out to bury private schools ends up revitalising them. The present snobbish complacency gives way to an era of aggressive entrepreneurialism. Fees go down rather than up, as their market share expands. Funny old world.
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