Labour’s planned attack on private schools is based on dangerous dogma. And it’s just the start

Forcing private schools to pay VAT will result in the state sector having to fund the education of large numbers of children whose parents can no longer afford the fees

Under normal circumstances, a council claiming to have found an extra 4,600 secondary school places it didn’t know existed would have been big news and subjected to some scrutiny. But these are not normal times, and my Edinburgh Evening News column aside, the revelation that the capacity of Edinburgh Council’s secondary schools has expanded by 4,688 more places since last year was not greeted with scepticism, but claims it had “destroyed” Conservative arguments against Labour’s plan to impose VAT on private schools.

A review of Edinburgh’s schools applied a new methodology to increase notional capacity by ten to 15 per cent, with “more effective use of space through flexible timetabling and an end to the traditional ‘one classroom, one teacher’ approach” and “better use of outdoor learning spaces and facilities in the local community”. It sounded like a recipe for chaos, with pupils being sent to off-campus buildings, or rooms being used for more than one lesson simultaneously, but it produced a 20 per cent rise to 27,748 places.

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The initial report last April recognised any figures the review produced would need to be transparent because of concerned parents making placing appeals for their children and to enforce developer contributions for infrastructure investments, but there might be unintended consequences. Perhaps Edinburgh’s education officials thought they were being smart by showing their schools were more than capable of coping with the expected exodus from the independent sector, but it has inadvertently given a get-out for developers seeking to build in the few remaining sites left in the most desirable areas.

The cost of going to private school looks set to rise following Labour's expected election victory (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)The cost of going to private school looks set to rise following Labour's expected election victory (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
The cost of going to private school looks set to rise following Labour's expected election victory (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
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Politics of envy is driving Labour’s disastrous private school VAT tax pledge

New school appears in figures

Councillors recently tried to compel developers seeking to build 256 low-carbon homes at Inverleith to pay £2m for a potential expansion of nearby Flora Stevenson Primary, but the new figures show the school has capacity for 630 pupils but the roll could drop from 542 to 315 by 2033. Had the decision not been reversed, the developer’s appeal would have been a foregone conclusion.

The new local development plan earmarks the Astley Ainsley hospital in The Grange for 500 homes where the catchment’s secondaries, Boroughmuir, James Gillespie’s and St Thomas of Aquin’s in Lauriston, have a total increased capacity of 390 places, but their rolls are set to drop to 775 below the maximum. So with the council now claiming it has spare secondary capacity the equivalent of a whole new school, why would any developer agree to pay a secondary education contribution? It won’t be the same everywhere, like West Edinburgh where thousands of new homes are planned and there is no secondary school, but house builders will be looking at the new estimates with glee.

Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar (who’s rarely asked why Shawlands Academy wasn’t good enough for his children) claimed his party’s assault on private education would inject “much-needed” cash into the state sector to recruit more teachers, and even insisted there would be little net effect because enrolment had increased in the last year, as if that makes any difference to the affected families.

School closures

But as has been repeatedly pointed out, every child educated privately saves the Scottish Government well over £8,000 a year. According to an impact study for the Scottish Council of Independent Schools by the Biggar Economics consultancy, it saved the public purse an estimated £189m last year, £61m in Edinburgh alone. On a conservative estimate of a 13 per cent drop-out rate across Scotland, just covering the education cost will be £24m and the expected VAT revenue will fall from £51m to £44m, but a reduction in other taxes will wipe out the remainder. First Minister John Swinney says the SNP support the policy, yet it will cost his government money.

Some smaller schools could close but, while others will survive, their nature will change and the impact will be even greater as independent schools question the value of investing in public sector partnerships. Dollar Academy has been providing free access for over 50 schools to its International Sustainability Diploma course developed by its Futures Institute which explores alternatives to traditional teaching and exams, but why should Dollar parents help fund that if 20 per cent VAT has been added to their fees?

And why should George Watson’s College parents continue subsidising state school pupils to study Chinese at its Chinese language centre? Local day pupils at the big boarding schools like Fettes may become a thing of the past, and although there are plenty of wealthy overseas families ready to fill any boarding vacancies, it will turn them from Scottish institutions into international schools.

Greece-style disaster looms

In a social media post last week, Clifton Hall preparatory school head Rod Grant pointed out that 3,858 pupils attending Scottish independent schools receive means-tested financial assistance, and such payments will be vulnerable as schools seek to cut costs to limit the VAT impact, with the families likely to leave the sector. That alone is 13 per cent of the total.

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“The Labour party has ignored these facts because, as with all political parties, they don’t actually listen; they are more interested in dogma than reality,” wrote Mr Grant. “Sir Keir Starmer believes he can invest more in the state sector and hire 6,500 more teachers… one extra teacher for every three schools. In England alone (in November 2023), there were 2,802 teaching positions advertised and unfilled.”

Citing the example of a 23 per cent tax on private education in Greece, Mr Grant said: “Many independent schools closed overnight. Thousands of teachers lost their jobs, many of whom then left the profession. Such was the impact of this tax, thousands of displaced children were unable to find state school places. The same will happen in the UK and it will be children who suffer the consequences.”

The impact on individual children is clearly not Labour’s concern, the disruption and worry for thousands of families making sacrifices to do the best for their kids just collateral damage of a political posture. And this is just the start.



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