There are around 200 boarding schools in the EU, excluding the UK. Around 300 in the US, 100 or so in Canada, around 400 in the Africa and about 175 in Australia. In the UK there are more than 480 independent and state boarding schools, making it the world leader in primary and secondary residential education by size.
“World leading we may be, but boarding education isn’t cheap.”
King’s Canterbury in Kent welcomed its first boarders in 597 while MPW in London has only just opened its doors to residential students. The UK’s boarding schools have educated 40 of the UK’s 57 prime ministers and have an unrivalled roster of eminent alumni.
But here’s the thing: world leading we may be, but boarding education isn’t cheap.
If you select one of the UK’s 30+ state boarding schools for your child, the tuition is free (actually paid by parents through income tax), but boarding will still cost £1,000 a month. And the fees of an independent senior boarding school are three times that.
Parents choosing boarding schools or independent schools, or both, are often caricatured as a lucky group for whom paying for education is no more of a hardship than maintaining a third car or a second home in the south of France. Perhaps for a very small number this is true.
A real stretch
For the vast majority, however, paying for school fees, let alone boarding fees, is a real stretch, more often than not requiring both household incomes and other sources of funding.
“The question, which as an experienced lawyer Keir Starmer probably knows, is flawed.”
So Keir Starmer’s proposal to levy VAT on school fees is interesting. At face value it might sound good, either to Labour supporters or average voters. I mean if you ask the general question “do you think rich private schools should be taxed more to support poor state schools?” you’re bound to find some who agree.
But, of course, the question, which as an experienced lawyer Keir Starmer probably knows, is flawed.
Because if you also asked: “if taxing rich private schools were to lead to i) thousands of parents withdrawing their children and returning them to the state sector ii) international students heading elsewhere than the UK and iii) dozens of small schools closing, costing hundreds of jobs, do you think it should happen?” you’d probably get a different response.
As someone who represents boarding schools, I have a dog in this fight, so my views are biased.
What I think is irrelevant, however. Because I have read the independent Baines Cutler report which estimates that 90,000 parents will withdraw their children from independent education if the cost of VAT is added to fees because they can’t afford it. And many of those will be boarding parents.
So my question to Keir Starmer is: ‘If you want to transfer money from independent schools to state, how will you do this if there are fewer parents and schools to collect it from?’.
Everyone’s got a list of things they’d buy in an ideal world with lots of money. But they haven’t, so they don’t.
This article appears in the latest print edition of Independent School Management Plus magazine, out soon.