General Election 2024

What’s missing from the private schools VAT debate

While the media obsessed over tax breaks for fee-paying schools, no one’s discussing the crisis of school absence in the state sector

June 06, 2024
Wes Streeting brought a moment of perspective to the education debate. Image: Tayfun Salci / Alamy Stock Photo
Wes Streeting brought a moment of perspective to the education debate. Image: Tayfun Salci / Alamy Stock Photo

I’m not a betting woman, but if I was, I wouldn’t have put a single penny on Wes Streeting, shadow secretary for Health and Social Care, being the one to bring sanity and perspective to the education debate that’s raging. And yes, yes, that’s his job, but you know… (No offence, Wes, babe). 

“We want to extend opportunity, aspiration and ambition,” he stormed on Question Time, sounding like, well, a Labour politician. “And that is not simply the preserve of the wealthy.” 

He cocked his chin towards the audience in righteousness, jabbed the desk with his finger mid-defence of Labour’s plans to end the bizarre and unjustified VAT exemption for independent and fee-paying schools. It was enough to make your palms sweat. 

Especially after a week largely soundtracked by radio phone-ins, telly segments and screaming headlines of course slamming the proposals (of course because, as NCTJ research revealed, 80 per cent of UK journalists came from the highest social classes.) 

You want proof of the pipeline to power for the 7 per cent who are privately educated? Look at the fact that straight out of the sodden gate, private schools are dominating discussion in a country whose back has been broken on the altar of austerity. Where are the issues and concerns of the 93 per cent? The 22 per cent living in poverty? Instead, the private-school educated—including our own prime minister during the first live telly debate—rail against Labour’s policy: But my parents worked numerous jobs, worked all hours, harder than anyone, made sacrifices to afford my educationnn! They claim that this is about fairness, then. But fairness would see all parents justly rewarded for their graft and sacrifice, including the working-class mums and dads who can't currently feed their kids, never mind land the same top-drawer educational opportunities. No, this is actually about what they’re entitled to because of the entirely random meeting of an egg and a sperm in a pretty postcode.

The private school defenders are arguing as a class of people who—painful truth time—often simply believe that they’re worth more. And isn’t that, after all, what independent schools teach?

That they have a right to pay for a premium version of a basic human right, no questions asked; a right to individual advancement—a premium version of life—as a private citizen in a free market. Regardless of any harm that may—and does—cause to wider society, and the inequality it seeds from when a child can first toddle. This is rank unfairness.

Truthfully, when the railing and the wailing’s done, when Labour has ridden into government and slapped on that VAT, the pay-to-play world of education will—shocker—just keep turning. 

But the oxygen will have been sucked out of these precious pre-election weeks by the 7 per cent. The tiny window in which the rest of us can, to some degree, hold the government (and prospective government) to account will close again. And in education, it’s the cries of our state schools that are being drowned out beneath the bombast, that risk not being substantively addressed at all—as evidenced by that shambolic, superficial ITV debate.

What’s missing from the conversation? Six weeks ago, it was announced that there are now more foodbanks in schools—a record one in five schools now run one—than out in the community, run by charities. Four years ago, the chair of the education select committee Robert Halfon MP first sounded the alarm on absence, the deep and enduring state school crisis impacting millions of families. As I found when I investigated the issue for the BBC series Terri White: Finding Britain’s Ghost Children, it’s a crisis that has the most impact on our vulnerable children: those with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), those who live in deprived areas and those who are eligible, like I was, for free school meals.

It’s a crisis caused by the many siloed hellscapes that have cracked open. And not just in education, but across public services, and wider society. 

There’s the lack of SEND support and provision, and the same in mental health (which is worsening in our kids); insecure housing often miles from school; poverty leaving kids starving, unable to get the bus or buy a uniform; the collapse of social care and its impact on kids in care and on families who need support, plus the increasing demands on teachers who step into the breach. Then there’s the kids at risk of abuse and neglect, who risk slipping through the gaps entirely. 

Throw in a recruitment and retention issue in teaching, crumbling buildings, budget cuts, decimated morale, burnout, stress, shameful pay increases, and yes, a fire is raging in our state schools. 

Yet no-one’s calling for it to be put out. No one’s saying, well, owt, except: Well, it’ll just be worse when schools are flooded with those no longer in private schools

If we ignore the fact that fee increases in private education (of, wouldn’t you know it, 20 per cent since 2010) have never resulted in that, the suggestion that we should uphold a wildly unfair system that drives the attainment gap—and an entire-life gap—because we can’t get our act together on state schools is a nonsense. And I’ll simply raise a single cynical eyebrow at the theory that gaming the system is for the good of poor kids. 

There is simply no incentive for improving state schools like making them everyone’s problem. You watch how quickly our political leaders and media class start demanding reform when their kids and neighbours’ kids go to these schools. 

And they should be improved; they desperately need to be. It’s a myth that publicly supplied services must always be broken or worse than the private sector. And it’s a myth that benefits those who don’t want the public expecting  more—demanding what they’re entitled to. 

I’m going to return to absence—the actual single biggest crisis in our nation’s education today—to give some more of that perspective Wes Streeting started doling out.

1.4m school kids in English state education are persistently absent, a further 142,000 “severely absent”. That is the equivalent of a quarter of all privately educated children (who total 592,000) having all-but disappeared from education entirely, and almost three times the total number of private-school kids having issues with absence. It’s nowt short of a scandal.

“We make no apology for putting the education, and ambitions, and opportunities of kids from working-class backgrounds like mine, the 93 per cent of kids, above the schools that educate the 7 per cent,” Wes Streeting said when he first raised his finger. 

Nice theory, but is it enough? 

With the vast numbers of kids missing out on an education (any education), and 4.3m in poverty, it’s going to take more than a 1997-style middle-class-aspiration for all pitch to prove the cries of the 93 per cent are heard loud and clear.

So, we wait: palms dry. Make a betting woman of me yet, Wes.