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Should We Fund Universal Free School Meals Through VAT on Private School Fees?

Picking apart Labour's newest idea.

Alex Farrell

Naked Politics Blogger 

Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn announced his plan to enforce a 20% VAT on private school fees in order to fund free school meals for all children in state primary schools. With average private school fees now at around £13,000 a year, this would mean families wanting to send their children through private education having to pay on average an extra £2,600 per year per child. This policy seems like a sensible way to redistribute privilege in the education system. In reality, would actually widen the education gap.

The pressure on the state education system is immense, with over half a million children in classes of over 30 pupils, therefore taking money from independent schools could be a way to ease pressure on the state schools. However it should be taken from the schools and not the parents. Having attended a private school from the age of 11 to 18, I know that many of the families sending their children, were having to make sacrifices to do so. Yes, some people there were the typical stereotype of their families being millionaires and them not knowing how lucky they were. However, I also saw other friends from primary school on similar incomes to my family carry on through the state system but take mega-holidays abroad every year instead. This makes it seem like parents are being punished for attempting to give their children the best level of education rather than saving up for a big house or taking the amazing holidays that an extra £13,000 a year in your pocket could give you- and that’s with just one child in private education.

This policy does not target those of a very high income that are the private school stereotype- it targets those who have decided to scrimp and save in order to put their children through the best education possible. The “super-rich” who can afford to send their kids to private schools, go on holiday to the Maldives and own a Bentley are the ones that will still be able to afford to keep their child in private education. It is the (lower-)middle class families that will no longer be able to send their children. This creates an even smaller super-elite and creates even more of a divide in education.

Furthermore, the fact that people will be forced to drop out of private education and back into state education actually leaves the taxpayer with a bigger burden. Revenue raised from the tax would in reality, have to go on funding state schools to take in an influx of kids who used to go to independents and so were not needed to be subsidised by the taxpayer. With class sizes already at their max, the state system will struggle to accommodate this without reducing the quality of education for those already there.

Bearing this in mind, I would also question the use of this money in going towards giving all children free school meals. Corbyn will point to statistics outlining that children’s attendance has risen since the introduction of free school meals however can we really say that this is because of that policy? After all, correlation doesn’t mean causation and all that. But instead could this rise in attendance not actually be from other policies such as the threat to parents of facing jail time if their child’s attendance is low?

In addition, free school meals are already given to all children in reception, year one and year two and after this they are means tested. This means that any family who cannot afford to give their children a good lunch everyday does not have to. Therefore, the people who struggle the most will see no impact on their child. The revenue raised from the VAT will just redistribute from lower-middle class to lower-middle class.

On the other hand, private schools currently hold a charitable status which excludes them from tax. I would suggest that instead of imposing a tax on the fees and the parents, this charitable status was taken away and so the schools themselves were forced to contribute to the state schooling system. Then this revenue could be put towards schemes to improve the quality of education such as teacher training programmes. To me, this would be a much more effective way of improving the level of state education than giving free meals to families who do not need them.

Overall, what this policy will achieve is the creation of an even more elitist bubble in private schools and put even greater pressure on state schools. Does this sound like a reduction in the education gap to you?

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