With yet another U-turn from Starmer on his policies on private schools, his commitment to the left seems increasingly implausible.
Fee-paying schools have been a topic discussed at great length by politicians for as long as most of us can remember. Even though only 7% of our population attended private school, 65% of those in top jobs, such as senior judges, were educated in this way. Until recently, official Labour party policy pledged to end the charitable status of private schools, and remove the tax breaks they currently enjoy. But last week, Keir Starmer U-turned on this promise, leaving many feeling as though he has abandoned a plan that will increase opportunities for children across the country, in order to side step the risk of losing typical Tory votes.
Glasgow is one of many universities across the UK which disproportionately educates private school students. The University is within the top 20 further education institutions in the UK, regarding the percentage of their students who attended private schools: 16%. With many of us hoping that a Labour government might take proactive measures to narrow the class divide, Starmer’s U-turn is just another disappointment young people have faced this year.
His initial message was clear: charitable status stripped, VAT tax imposed, money raised to “fund desperately needed teachers and mental-health counselling in every secondary school”. So when Shadow Education Secretary Bridget Phillipson, who had previously promised the same pledge in order to “fund the most ambitious state school improvement plan in a generation”, then insisted that the “charitable status” claim was merely shorthand, it seems implausible that they could be merely sloppy with their wording. Multiple times across recent months, Starmer had confirmed that the perks enjoyed by the 1,250 private schools who hold charitable status would be removed, leading to a legal obligation to pay capital gains tax and stamp duty tax. But with this latest U-turn, private schools will remain entitled to tax breaks, business rates and gift aid, meaning that money that could be spent on improving the (literally) crumbling conditions of many UK state schools, instead continues to spare the fees paid by already wealthy parents.
Right-leaning newspapers and the Independent Schools Council criticised Starmer’s initial proposals along these lines. They claim that it is unfair for parents to be charged higher fees, with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak saying that the policy is part of a “class war”, to “punish” aspirational parents. Whilst this might sound ridiculous to the average person, much of the press and public actually agree with this. Perhaps, then, Starmer reigned in his supposed “attack” on private schools because he is risk-averse, and wants to minimise losing votes in the upcoming general election. This policy, after all, was a continuation of the manifestos of 2017 and 2019, which were ultimately unsuccessful at the ballot box. But is this really good politics, obsessing over polling numbers, at the expense of giving thousands more children in state schools the opportunities they deserve?
Starmer does still intend to impose 20% VAT charges on private schools if they are elected, meaning that, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, £1.5bn could be raised each year. He emphasised his aspiration for a country where “it doesn’t matter whether you send your child to private school or to state school because you’ll get equal chances in life”, and remains keen to reinvest this money in the comprehensive school system. He defends his U-turn on removing charitable status from private schools by arguing that it is simply too complicated, and notes that previous attempts have had to be abandoned after legal challenges from the Independent Schools Council. Still, his additional comments last week – that he is “very comfortable” with private schools, and does not want to pass any extra costs onto fee-paying parents – undermines any notion that he is committed to truly left-wing education policies.
Ultimately, Starmer has, once again, put politics over principles, and thwarted a change in policy that could have a genuine impact in reducing educational inequalities. While his refusal to take even calculated risks may ensure he receives a few more votes from the centrist electorate, this may be at the expense of the trust of his party members.