The real losers from Labour’s VAT raid on private schools? The children

VAT on private school fees would raise extra cash to fund state schools  (Getty)
VAT on private school fees would raise extra cash to fund state schools (Getty)

Won’t somebody please think of the children?!”

I never expected to use this line – uttered hysterically by the judgemental vicar’s wife character on The Simpsons – in earnest. But the Labour Party’s latest proposal to add VAT onto private school fees might just force my hand.

Admittedly, like many of the biggest issues in the so-called culture wars, private schools get a disproportionate amount of attention in relation to the number of people actually affected by anything to do with them. Only 5.9 per cent of children in the UK are privately educated, with estimates putting the number at around 540,000 of the 14 million-strong population of under-18s. Some think the latest brouhaha could reduce this even further.

The addition of VAT – 20 per cent of the current fees – would be passed directly along to the parents of children in private schools, some of whom argue that they will feel unable to afford the price hike and end up moving their kids into the state system as a result. Labour said it would also end business rates relief for private schools in England. It’s been one of the most contentious and talked-about policy announcements of the election campaign thus far, drawing as it does clear battle lines between Starmer and Sunak. Critics on the right have called it the “politics of envy”; Labour has pledged that the £1.7bn raised by the move would be ploughed into improving local authority schools, funding “desperately needed teachers and mental health counselling in every secondary school” and helping to level the playing field between the haves and the have-nots.

It’s all purely hypothetical at present – a policy that Labour has pledged to introduce should they be elected in the snap general election on 4 July. But, as polling puts them more than 20 percentage points in the lead as of 31 May, it looks likely to become a reality.

That’s certainly how parents are taking it, according to Catherine Stoker, founder of The Independent Education Consultants, which advises families on which schools and universities might best suit their children. “We can see changes happening for this coming September,” she says. “I think parents have already made decisions on what to do regarding future schooling, based on the assumption that there will be added VAT. Talking to independent schools, they’ve got more last-minute places than I’ve seen in 20 years of working in education.” She puts this down to parents being too anxious about the potential uptick in price to enrol their children into fee-paying schools.

In fact, more than a quarter of parents would remove their children from private school if VAT comes in, according to a survey of more than 2,000 high-net-worth individuals by wealth manager Saltus – prompting questions about how local authority schools will handle the sudden influx.

Private schools such as Eton will have to up their already considerable fees (Getty)
Private schools such as Eton will have to up their already considerable fees (Getty)

Again, the level of discourse sparked by this particular political football vastly outweighs its relevance to most of the electorate. But while I’ve seen plenty of passionate arguments on both sides commending and disparaging the idea – and, while it makes no odds to most of us whether parents on the “poorer” end of the one percenters are priced out of the private education market and forced to put their offspring into (gasp!) state school – there’s been a worrying dearth of chatter about those most affected by it.

“In all the debates I’ve seen about proposed private school changes, nobody seems to be thinking of the kids,” agrees Dr Gavin Morgan, the chair of the division of educational and child psychology at the British Psychological Society. “Whether it’s from private to a local authority school or the other way around, any transition is a time of huge upheaval that needs to be planned for.”

And as much as it can be tempting to scoff at elite parents having to downgrade from Farrow & Ball to Dulux or swap the Maldives for the Malverns, the real victims of a private school price hike will be the students yanked out mid-education and shunted into a new environment.

“For some children, school changes can of course be positive, however when this change is sudden or unexpected, even if the change is a positive change, this can still cause anxiety,” says Tammy, co-founder and clinical director at the Children’s Wellness Centre, which specialises in educational psychology and counselling services for children and teens. She tells me that, while children experience many transitions throughout childhood, adequate preparation can make a huge difference in helping them adapt positively – such as nursery school teachers speaking to pre-schoolers about moving up to “big school” around a term before they leave. It helps them anticipate what to expect, lowering stress levels around the change.

In all the debates I’ve seen about proposed private school changes, nobody seems to be thinking of the kids

Dr Gavin Morgan

Conversely, “When this sense of transition preparation for a child is taken away – for example, if they are told they very suddenly have to move schools with little to no warning – then for some children this could have negative implications, socially, academically and developmentally.” It can lead to heightened stress and anxiety when predictable routines are removed, something borne out during the Covid pandemic, when abrupt school closures took a significant toll on children’s wellbeing.

In particular, losing strong relationships can be a major wrench for children. “There can be impacts on their social development as they move from one existing and formed social group to a new social situation, with no formed relationships,” says Dr Paul Kelly, a consultant educational and child psychologist. “If an unexpected school move happens ‘in-year’ [during the academic year], it can be more difficult for a child to form friendships within existing and formed friendship groups.” Separation from close friendships and a positive sense of belonging “in a sudden and unexpected manner can result in ‘thwarted belongingness’, which can adversely affect the mental health of some children”.

This was certainly true for Penelope Shortland-Palmer’s sons, who were forced to switch schools suddenly in 2020 when the pandemic struck. They had been in private school in Spain at the time, but the whole family had to move back to the UK. Thirteen and 11 at the time, the boys struggled hugely. “I think it’s safe to say neither of them ever fully recovered,” she says. “It’s been disastrous in every way. It’s not entirely the fault of the schools – it had a lot to do with moving countries, losing friends, familiarity, constancy, all those things.”

While she believes her eldest would have done “marginally better” in his GCSEs had they stayed in Spain, “on balance, the education outcomes were similar”. But her younger son is a different matter entirely. Diagnosed as autistic, he has now been taken out of school after “failures of the school, and failures of the system to address his needs”.

Private schools have becoming a defining line between Conservative leader Rishi Sunak and Labour leader Keir Starmer (PA)
Private schools have becoming a defining line between Conservative leader Rishi Sunak and Labour leader Keir Starmer (PA)

One key element of the proposed taxation is that it is a blanket, across-the-board tax of 20 per cent for everyone using the private schools system, rather than being means tested. In reality, the wealthiest families won’t be the ones who suffer – it will be those squeezed at the lower end of the spectrum. And, in some cases at least, these will be people who have scrimped, saved and sacrificed in order to send a child with complex additional needs or neurodiversity to a specialist independent school where they will be understood and catered for. One in five pupils – more than 100,000 – in independent schools currently receive some form of special educational needs and disabilities (Send) support, according to the site Independent School Parent. And the number of children placed in independent schools because they need support for Send continues to increase year on year, says Dr Kelly.

“Removal of pupils from specialist school provisions, by its nature, will impact on children with special educational needs or disability, including neurodiverse children, who are likely to struggle more with unexpected change and difference,” he adds.

Dr Morgan agrees that, generally speaking, children who are neurodiverse or autistic are even more likely to suffer the ill-effects of unanticipated change. “They tend to prefer routine and structure – they depend on knowing what to expect, and clearly knowing what is going to happen day by day, hour by hour, lesson by lesson. It can have an impact if there’s any change to their routine.”

Having said that, he highlights that many local authority schools can be very good at supporting children with additional needs. It comes down to preparation and planning to ease the transition if parents are considering a change of school. “There’s lots parents can do: spending time in the new school, getting to know the teachers and routines, and having lots of conversations with the receiving school and teachers. Find out what was working in the previous school, and talk about how the new school can incorporate and accommodate those things in terms of how the child was taught and how things were structured.” Communication is key.

The real victims of a private school price hike will be the students yanked out mid-education and shunted into a new environment

Stoker warns that another likely consequence of charging more for private schools will be that they become more elite as they attempt to cut costs and save money, ultimately thwarting bright kids from less privileged backgrounds. “There are usually quite a lot of children on bursaries [subsidised places] – schools will undoubtedly be considering whether they can still afford to offer those,” she says. So, too, private schools may be forced to become more commercial, she predicts – and it could spell less sharing of good practice and facilities with state schools in the area and the local community.

Children might also find themselves subject to intensive tutoring and extra pressure in cases where parents who can no longer afford private school fees are desperate for them to pass entrance exams for the local grammar school instead. “Every child wants to approach the test with confidence and feel they are able to do their best on the day,” says Stoker. “But the idea of tutoring a child to within an inch of their life because parents are worried they are not going to thrive in the local state school is, I think, quite concerning.”

Despite all this, if parents are forced to remove their children from fee-paying schools with the VAT levy, it doesn’t have to be the end of the world. The key, says Dr Kelly, is “careful, additional planning and transition work”, and additional support for developing peer relations.

Nothing should be done too hastily – “Don’t do it overnight,” says Dr Morgan – and kids should feel like they have some agency in what’s happening. He uses the comparison of a grown-up being told that they were expected to work in a completely different office with different colleagues with zero notice, and how disruptive and distressing that might feel. “There can be positive things that come from change, but children don’t like being done ‘to’, just as adults don’t like being done ‘to’,” he adds. “Explain what’s going on, take children around the new school, get to know people. The child is at the centre of this, they have to be involved in every decision made about their wellbeing whatever their age. Talk to and involve your child as much as possible.”

Really, it pretty much comes back to what I said at the start: “Won’t somebody please think of the children?” This is one particular political football we should all be wary of kicking too hard.