“May you live in interesting times.” This curse, coined by a British diplomat in the 1930s, has always puzzled me. Why wouldn’t people want to live in interesting times – how could that possibly be something ill to wish upon someone? And then Labour’s VAT policy made our winter very interesting indeed…
Labour’s plan is not a new one. It was first introduced in 2019 – before Keir Starmer was even leader. And it had been announced as Labour policy back in 2021, and rarely referenced since then.
This changed in November, when the chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, mentioned the policy at the despatch box. During his autumn statement, he said: “Some have suggested putting VAT on independent school fees as a way of increasing core funding for schools, which would raise about £1.7 billion. But according to certain estimates, that would result in up to 90,000 children from the independent sector switching to state schools, giving with one hand only to take away with another. So instead of being ideological, I am going to be practical.”
The £1.7 billion estimate Hunt mentioned was – and is – Labour’s claimed per-year revenue from such a policy, calculated from multiplying the sector’s yearly fees revenue by 0.2, and taking nothing else into consideration.
“This policy affects the right of parents to choose how they spend their money.”
The figure of 90,000 children leaving the sector came from the Baines Cutler report, an ISC-commissioned study. By examining finances, exploring data and even – shock horror – talking to the parents who would be impacted, Baines Cutler found that far from raising money, Labour’s policy would end up costing the taxpayer £400m a year by the fifth year, leaving no extra money for state schools.
Make the case
These points were debated in the media spotlight over the end of November and the start of December. It seems both parties saw the policy as a way of making a wider point about themselves and their opposition. But, interesting though it was, it gave us a unique opportunity to make the case for our schools and the public benefit they provide accurately and loudly.
We were able to show that while fees had risen above inflation, bursaries had risen even further – with more students being helped by greater amounts of money (in fact, over a third of students at ISC schools receive some form of fee remission). Oxford Economics provided information showing the value of the sector to the economy: the fact that our schools support £5.1 billion in tax every year, while saving the taxpayer a further £4.4 billion by educating students who would otherwise take up space in the state sector.
We were also able to highlight that this policy is one that affects choice: the right of parents to choose how they spend their money and to choose the right school for their child. And it would be a tax on education – breaking the principle that education is not taxed, and making England an international outlier.
Threat to the sector
While all this has been going on, some have pointed out that things have been interesting for our sector before. This is true. But this is different to any threat the sector has faced before, and different to any Labour policy that has been mooted for our sector previously.
“Our whole communities will ask searching questions about what exactly we were doing while this was going on.”
Put simply: we need to take this seriously. We must fight it and plan for the possibility that it could happen anyway. If we do not, our teachers, our parents, and our whole communities will ask searching questions about what exactly we were doing while this was going on. And they’d be right to do so.
So far, so interesting. But where does my school come into it, I hear you cry.
While the ISC is working hard at a national level to talk to the press and politicians about the policy – and it’s important to stress that we are fighting the policy Labour has presented, not opposing Labour as a political party – we can create noise, but it’s you on the ground who can make a difference by turning that national noise into a local focus.
Internally, you need to be as honest and reassuring as you can be with parents and staff. Many of you will have already started messaging around this and you should have received ISC guidance on the current situation and how to talk to your stakeholders.
“It’s schools on the ground who can make a difference by turning that national noise into a local focus.”
Outlining concerns to your community about the policy is important because your parents and your staff are our greatest assets when it comes to persuading others about the folly of Labour’s policy. Encourage them to get on social media and share their thoughts.
And definitely encourage them to speak to their local politicians about their concerns – not just their current MPs, but their candidates too: get them to shout about it loudly and often. (And please make sure you’re also writing to your MPs, explaining the potential impact on their constituency and inviting them in for a visit.)
Externally, we need to demonstrate exactly what we provide to society. For most of you, that means the valuable partnership work you do that puts you at the heart of your communities. Show that it’s a collaborative effort between state and independent schools to share best practice to drive up educational standards for all. And talk to your state partners about the possibility of their joining with you to highlight the importance of your partnership work: we need people outside the sector pointing to the damage that could be done if work is slowed or lost.
I know that a lot of you will also be doing generous and innovative work with bursaries, so don’t be afraid to talk about that. The absolute best part of there being more of a focus on our sector is that we can get people talking about all the great things our schools are doing to improve education for every young person.
Despite how interesting the times are, I can’t fully see it as a curse. Because I believe that as people look more closely at our schools, the good they do for the children in their care and for the local community only becomes more apparent. We want to work with Labour on sensible solutions to improve education for all children, building on the amazing work you are already doing.
We hope they take us up on that offer.
This article appears in the latest edition of Independent School Management Plus magazine, out now.