That high-pitched noise you can hear in the distance is the sound of the Daily Mail weeping with relief. On Wednesday, the Labour party attempted to force a binding vote on ending private schools’ tax breaks. The motion to set up a new committee to investigate private schools’ “charitable status” failed by 303 to 197, but in many ways Keir Starmer got what he wanted: he skewered the government’s record on education, and highlighted unrest among staff. The £1.7bn a year that would be raised by scrapping tax breaks – which include 80% relief on business rates and exemption from VAT on school fees – Starmer pointed out, could be used to recruit 6,500 new teachers.
It is a smart move to frame ending private schools’ tax breaks as a means to improve the quality of state education. A staggering nine out of 10 schools in England will run out of money by the next school year owing to the burden of increased energy and salary bills. While state school teachers are having to buy their own class books, it feels particularly obscene to spend public money helping wealthy parents buy more advantage. At a time when many families are struggling to afford the heating, there will be little public sympathy for the upper middle classes complaining about slightly higher school fees.
The Tories’ defences for maintaining charitable status were paper thin. The education secretary, Gillian Keegan, said ending tax breaks was the “policy of envy” and could prompt many fee-paying schools to scale back the number of bursaries and scholarships they offer. But data shows that schools’ “financial assistance” is actually considerably more likely to go to affluent, middle-class families than disadvantaged ones. To object to this is not envy: it’s decency. Meanwhile, Rishi Sunak argued the move would be an attack on the “hard-working aspiration of millions of people” – despite the fact that the average annual fee for day pupils at independent schools is £15,191, around half the average UK salary before tax, and far beyond what most of us can “aspire” to.
The narrative for the Labour party going forward is simple: is it fair for taxpayers’ cash to be spent subsidising private schools when your child’s state school is going without? Unlike his predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn, Starmer is less vulnerable to accusations from the rightwing press that he is waging class war as he continues to make these arguments. Starmer’s focus on ending private schools’ charitable status is reminiscent of Tony Blair’s foxhunting ban: a safe symbol for the left that doesn’t really require any structural change.
And yet it is only real structural change that will help bridge the gap between private and state schools. Whether it’s siphoning off bright classmates and influential parents from the state sector or maintaining the old boys’ clubs from which jobs are doled out, the advantages that private schools leach off the rest of us don’t stop at tax breaks. Just look at the investigation by openDemocracy published this week that found private schools were handed more than £157m in government-subsidised loans during the pandemic, while state schools were barred from applying. If you ever wondered why governments are reluctant to rein in the favour they grant to private schools, consider that the major beneficiaries of the scheme were … several ministers’ former schools.
In the coming months, Labour can use the tax break policy as a launchpad to push to go further. The party has previously debated capping universities’ student intakes from private schools and it should be viewed as the long-term goal. Private school pupils comprise 7% of the school population, yet 40% or more of some top universities’ intakes: this is not a rational way to run society.
As the cost of living crisis deepens, any attempt to equalise life chances must also look at inequalities outside the school gates. The growing gulf between wealthy and poorer families needs to be tackled, from extending free school meals and more targeted energy bill support for the poorest, to reopening Sure Start early years centres. Reports of hungry children hiding in the playground because they can’t afford lunch are a brutal reminder of the scale of inequality we currently permit.
As we see each time charitable status is debated, the right ferociously defends against even the slightest attempt to curb the perks of the private school system. Those who are used to having a near-monopoly on university places, top careers and positions of power will not loosen their grip easily. But progress is possible, one step at a time. Every child in this country deserves an equal shot. Opportunities should not be handed out based on whose parents can buy them. These are not radical ideas but increasingly, mainstream thinking. That can give us all hope. Unless you’re the Daily Mail.
Frances Ryan is a Guardian columnist