What Happens if you put VAT on School Fees?

I have some respect for Sir Keir Starmer; he seems like a decent, clever, experienced man, and quite sane, thus a great contrast to the shower currently in the UK Cabinet. 

That said, I’m disappointed by the lack of thinking and research that has gone into this week’s policy announcement that a Labour Government will put VAT on fees paid to private schools. Disappointed, but not very surprised; this policy has been in the wind for a long time and it’s an easy way for the Labour leader to score some Brownie points with both the soft and the far left of the party, the latter apparently feeling fairly alienated right now. Of course, independent schools have never been an easier target; the image that the words ‘private school’ – or, indeed, ironically, ‘public school’ – bring to mind in the average British punter these days is, not unreasonably, an image of Boris or David Cameron or George Osborne or – even worse – Jacob Rees-Mogg. Actually, the very vast majority of people who attended private schools – or who currently attend them – are nothing like these men; many private school former pupils would self-harm if they thought they were being lumped in with the likes of them.

The issue of the charitable status of private schools has rumbled on for decades now; Business Rates Relief (part of that status) was removed in Scotland two years ago, with exceptions made for the smaller, specialist schools for vulnerable children and others with special needs which actually make up a fairly significant portion of independent schools in Scotland. Honestly, it’s transparently clear that some independent schools entirely deserve charitable status and others don’t. I have no idea, for example, why private schools with branches abroad feeding them large wodges of cash are given charitable status: they might be a place to start.

As I have opined before, if any political party wants to end private education in this country then they must simply do that – abolish private schools. Sure, some very wealthy parents will send their kids abroad to be educated but in practice the vast majority of current private school pupils would enter state education. Of course, no mainstream political party is going to suggest that so instead they are reduced to what is, in essence, dickering about.  And it’s dickering about, in this case, that will have exactly the opposite effect from that intended.

Putting VAT on school fees will have two effects. The first, obvious one, is that for a certain proportion (estimates vary wildly) of current fee payers, the direct addition of VAT will make it impossible for them to continue to afford fees and their children will go to the state sector. That – obviously – means an increased cost in maintaining affected state schools at their current levels of per head expenditure – about 6k a year for primary pupils and 8k for secondary students in Scotland. My guess is that some parents would decide to save their money for secondary education and not embark on private primary schooling. However, my experience is that parents will try everything before giving up on school fees – remortgaging, taking a second job, pleading with grandparents, selling a kidney – so it might simply be that that isn’t too much of an issue in practice.

However, many private schools would try very hard not to pass on the total cost of that VAT increase. In the case of the very wealthy schools down south that might mean sacrificing a new building. For the more mainstream private school, it will mean cutting back on financial aid, on the bursaries and scholarships which help young people from more financially constrained backgrounds go to private schools for part of the fee or for nothing. At a stroke, with its desire to make things more equal, the Labour Party would simply be making private schools more elitist, just as happened when they abandoned the direct grant in 1975 – lots of less well off kids left private education.

In their excellent book, ‘Engines of Privilege’ (subtitled ‘Britain’s Private School Problem’) the historian David Kynaston and the economist Francis Green, both gentlemen of the left, admit that, while they abhor private schools and the perceived unfairness of the whole concept of private education, this kind of chipping away is not the answer. The radical solution they advocate is to legislate to make private schools all have 30% of their places allocated free, with the state paying to the schools only the amount they would be paying for each child’s state education anyway. Now, Kynaston and Green’s book does have some problems for me, not the least being its Anglocentricity, but I can see that banging on about Eton and Winchester is a lot more clearcut than talking about Manchester Grammar School or Glasgow Academy (and all the others which are, of course, the majority of private schools). But this idea – that a third of pupils attend free – seems an opportunity both to begin a levelling of the playing field (there’s an appropriate use of a cliché) and to test the whole business of charitable status. It would certainly avoid making independent schools even more exclusively for the children of comfortably off people and positively rich people and I commend their suggested policy to Sir Keir as a more visionary, more useful and more practical way of changing the status quo.



  1. Morning. Your negativity to Jacob RM is interesting. Is it his undoubted erudition, his willingness to engage in polite debate with those with other views, his success starting a business or the fact he lives according to his religious and personal views despite hostility of those who do not hold the same views, that concerns you? Yes he started life with advantages, but unlike many appears to have made the most of them. I think your affinity to Scottish nationalism may be slightly distorting your perspective. Have a good day.


    1. I think he’s a terrible, thoughtless bigot, and I don’t have any admiration for his religious or personal views.
      I suppose that more or less sums it up. Also, respectfully, almost all of the political pieces on my blog are fairly clear on my views on the SNP’s educational policies.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Clearly you are perfectly entitled to your views on him and personally I disagree with his religious views but, with the greatest respect, that does not mean he is an exemplar of bad private/public schools. Life would be boring if we were all the same. Yes u challenge SNP on education but they are also economically illiterate and authoritarian and in my view dangerous to the vulnerable in our society.


  2. Imagine the chaos in Edinburgh if the private schools became totally outwith the reach of many. The schools would be overrun and the system would likely crumble. Different models as we used to have here would help. Remember James Gillespie’s and Royal High were a state version of ‘fee paying’?
    Being only slightly younger than yourself I remember the implementation of the comprehensive system in Scotland. It seems to fall between two stools not quite coping with the bright pupils or being able to keep the less able, hence the attraction of the private school for those who can afford it.
    Throwing VAT into the mix for ‘solving’ our private education issues strikes me as many other policies do of ‘sledge hammer to crack a nut’
    As you say it captures the headlines but it won’t help the ongoing crisis in education. But it’s not designed to deal with that……….!


  3. Most people don’t like rees-mogg becuase of his attacks on workers rights and that fact that all his policies lead to the poor getting poorer and the rich getting richer. VAT is regressive and a bad way to raise money. Would be better to assess schools individually to see if they meet the criteria for charitable status. If they are putting more into wider society than they are saving in taxes carry on.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s