Sadly, the 10-year-old Keir Starmer does not seem to have been the sort of child who thought ahead. A more cautious – or prophetic – boy would surely have refused to attend Reigate grammar, or even deliberately failed his 11-plus, on the off-chance that grammars would be one day abolished, his school being among those that became independent and his attendance used, some 50 years later, to defend tax breaks for private schools.
That young Starmer did not now inspires his more desperate critics to detect “the stench of hypocritical class envy” in Labour’s plan to remove the charitable status that confers on private schools, among other tax benefits, exemption from VAT valued at £1.7bn.
If I follow their reason, it really is that since Starmer, however inadvertently, benefited from private education, then private education for the most affluent, along with overseas plutocrats, should now continue to be subsidised by people who could never afford it. Logically then, such reform ought to look more appealing when proposed by someone untainted by their parents’ choice of school.
But Theresa May’s state education did not mollify critics when, as prime minister in 2016, she noted of private schools: “Between 2010 and 2015 their fees rose four times faster than average earnings growth, while the percentage of their pupils who come from overseas has gone up by 33% since 2008.” Moreover, these insatiable institutions were not reliably meeting their obligation, in return for continued tax advantages, to provide public benefit. May threatened the schools with losing their charitable status if they did not do more to earn it. She too was denounced by Conservative ministers and reprimanded by the schools. The chair of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference objected to “a gun pointing at our heads”. The headmaster of Rugby called her “a bit cheeky”, “a bit cheap”.
Compare with those expensive schoolboys David Cameron, Boris Johnson, Jeremy Hunt and Rishi Sunak, all recognising their adult duty to depict tax breaks for private education – an increasingly luxurious good to which access has, as even Tatler has regretted, steadily decreased – as somehow different from charitably discounting handbags. Last week, Sunak called private education “the aspiration of millions of hard-working people”. And admittedly, given a lottery win, there’s no reason why millions of hard-working people can’t aspire to a super-rich person’s education, just as they can aspire to a White Lotus-style hotel, Succession-inspired Tuscan wedding, or a cruise like the one in Triangle of Sadness.
New polling indicates, however, that a majority of 62% is unpersuaded by Sunak’s fiction; equally by heartrending tales of middle-class sacrifice like those intended last week to convey the dystopian prospect of Starmer-induced VAT. One writer detailed the Seychelles holidays and new cars his family had forgone – “such luxuries were denied us” – for the sake of private schooling. The Mail, also dwelling on middle-income agony, overlooked evidence of declining affordability that must long ago have excluded many readers. “Three-quarters of the children at private school are drawn from families in the top three income deciles,” according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, “and most of these from the richest decile.”
Disappointed parents can only wish their media sympathisers had expressed this level of anguish during the decades when private schools were habitually raising fees above inflation. Three years ago, the head of Stowe school said independent schools were doing too little for deprived children: bursaries were largely going to help out “the squeezed middle who can’t afford £40,000 fees”. Only 1% of independent school bursaries are fully funded.
For such a highly educated body, with reportedly so much at stake, the independent school sector has been, you could argue, remarkably careless, or arrogant, about making its case as a public asset. Even after being protected for centuries by the old boys it propelled into public life, and comforted in 2011 by a tax tribunal that, incredibly, allowed individual schools to define the public benefit that entitles them to charitable status, it should probably have woken up when Michael Gove started asking questions. “How can this be justified?” he asked in 2017 of the schools’ “egregious state support”.
If they could not have anticipated how some of their ghastliest alumni would abuse political power, or how many private schools would be exposed by the “Everyone’s Invited” revelations from girls whose sexual harassment was overlooked, or how a propensity to grade inflation would be exposed (but never punished) in lockdown, the eventual reputational impact of inadequate bursaries and super-exclusionary fees could have been foreseen. They could, for instance, have complied with May’s request for public benefit “benchmarks”. As it is, neither independent schools nor their allies can now offer a defence for their charitable status that is not inaccurate, implausible or farcical.
The independent schools’ continuing prosperity, after fees rose 60% in real terms (between 2000 and 2018), casts doubt on claims that an exodus of just-affluent-enough parents will, if VAT translates into further increases, be catastrophic for the sector.
The Good Schools Guide noted that parents are “willing to pay”. And if some can’t? These class war casualties will duly spend their former fees on the stratagems many of their peers (including proudly progressive ones) have employed for years: moving house, feigning religious belief, securing tutors for music and other reserved opportunities. The compensation for these efforts being, along with the edge in university applications, the moral one of never, obviously, buying an advantage.
As for the children destined by Labour to sacrifice all hopes of an imaginary life-changing bursary, there is one consolation. Since whatever a child might lose in character formation, (as recently demonstrated by Eton schoolboys) it stands to gain, if this ancient debate staggers on, in not being that lowest creature in the Tory bestiary: an undeserving recipient of state handouts.
• Catherine Bennett is an Observer columnist