Independent schools and Labour’s plan to end tax exemptions

By Geoff Barton
General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders

If Labour wins the next general election, it is fair to say that we don’t really know a great deal about what it would mean for education as yet. That’s not unusual for a party in opposition, and particularly one where an ideological battle has been raging.

One thing we do know, however, is that it intends to end tax exemptions for independent schools. Party leader Sir Keir Starmer indicated at last year’s Labour conference that the charitable status which applies to many independent schools would be removed, along with exemptions on VAT and business tax, raising £1.7 billion. 

And the policy was recently reaffirmed by Shadow Education Secretary Bridget Phillipson, writing in The Times, who said: 

By ending tax breaks for private schools, we would recruit thousands of new teachers, filling vacancies and skills gaps that have opened up during a decade of Conservative government. We would put professional careers advisors in every school, ensure every pupil takes part in quality work experience and ensure digital access by maintaining the laptops and tablets distributed throughout the pandemic, so that young people leave education ready for work and ready for life.”

So, Labour is certainly anticipating a very large ‘dividend’ from its plans for independent schools if it is expecting this to fund an army of new teachers, careers advisors, plus work experience opportunities and digital devices. 

But, even if you agree with the ideological premise of removing charitable status – and that is itself contentious – how realistic is Labour’s plan?

ASCL’s membership includes many independent school leaders so to understand the issue better, we recently asked them how their schools would be impacted. We emailed a survey link to 505 independent school headteachers in England, and we received 195 completed responses. Of those, 96% said their school has charitable status and therefore qualifies for certain tax exemptions.

We asked respondents what the impact would be on their school if charitable status was removed and it no longer qualified for tax exemptions. The common themes which emerged were:
  1. in several cases the likely closure of the school concerned with pupils being displaced into the state sector with the associated extra costs to the state
  2. an increase in school fees leading to some pupils being withdrawn and again being displaced into the state sector
  3. cuts to bursary-assisted places for pupils
  4. cuts to partnership working with local state schools 
Here is a sample of responses:
  • Fees would rise so much that we would lose pupils and possibly have to close.
  • The school would be unable to operate and our 800 pupils would need to be educated in the state sector.
  • Would be very challenging, fees would have to rise and our numbers would fall.
  • An extremely difficult financial situation and inevitably a sharp rise in school fees, which would price some parents out of independent education. Those parents would then be seeking places in maintained schools.
  • Law of unintended consequences: fees would go up, so more families would be priced out of independent education, therefore increasing cost and capacity pressures to maintained schools.
  • The increase in costs and decrease in pupils would probably mean the school is no longer viable. Hence, over 100 people would be unemployed and 100s of children would need to find other schools. 
  • The school could close and the bursaries we offer a substantial number of pupils would have to be withdrawn with immediate effect which would be devastating for them.
  • We estimate that it would be a c.15% increase in our fees that would be required to cover this. That would not be sustainable and our business would need to change/ close. We would also need to eliminate all means tested bursaries to help pay for it and we would need to eliminate all partnership work as part of cost reduction. In short, we would either close or we would stop all partnership and bursary work.
  • We break even. Our fees, which we retain as low as possible, would simply have to increase to cover the additional costs. 95% of our parents both work to send their children here, foregoing cars and holidays in order to do so. A significant number of these would move their children and place them into the maintained sector
So, let’s examine the impact of displacing a large number of independent school students into the state sector.

A sudden forced change of school would of course be disruptive and stressful for the students concerned, not to mention the staff who would lose their jobs. But beside the human cost, it would obviously mean that the state would have to pick up the cost for each pupil displaced into a maintained school. That is at least £4,265 per primary school pupil, and £5,525 per secondary school pupil in 2022/23 –so the total bill could become very large very quickly.

Whether this would entirely wipe out the ‘dividend’ from ending tax exemptions is difficult to say, but it would clearly make a sizeable dent. It seems extremely unlikely that there would be enough money left to pay for an army of teachers and careers advisors.

Of course, there is a certain political attraction to bashing private schools, and you will notice that in this blog I have avoided entering into the ideological debate. That is because the most important immediate focus should be on the practicalities of whether or not Labour’s policy actually works, and whether it is therefore worth the time, effort and pain involved.

Wherever you sit on the ideological spectrum, the feedback from independent schools is certainly cause for caution. There is a danger for Labour of entering into a policy which does not accrue anything like the benefits it claims, and simply moves money round in a circle. A policy which would, furthermore, occupy huge amounts of political and parliamentary time and energy which might be better spent on broader and more meaningful policies on education. 

Dealing with issues, for example, like streamlining the cluttered curriculum and qualification system, reforming an excessively harsh accountability regime, and providing more support to pupils with special educational and mental health needs. 

All these seem like more pressing and productive priorities for a future Labour government that has a clear focus on an agenda which will bring the maximum benefit to the greatest number of children.

Geoff Barton is ASCL General Secretary.
Posted: 10/06/2022 09:03:14