Labour wants to stoke punishing class war with tax on private school fees – PM

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said Labour does not understand the aspirations of parents (Alberto Pezzali/PA)
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said Labour does not understand the aspirations of parents (Alberto Pezzali/PA) Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said Labour does not understand the aspirations of parents (Alberto Pezzali/PA)

The Prime Minister has accused Sir Keir Starmer of wanting to “punish” the parents of private school pupils and stoking a “class war” with Labour’s pledge to charge VAT on school fees.

Rishi Sunak, who was privately educated, said the Opposition would be “clamping down” on the aspirations of parents who work “really hard” to send their children to independent schools with its policy.

It comes after the headmaster of Sir Keir’s former school said he hopes the Labour leader “sees sense” and drops the plan to scrap the 20% VAT tax relief that is currently applied to school fees.

Sir Keir has insisted his party is not launching an “attack” on private schools by removing some of the tax breaks they enjoy, with Labour also planning to end the business rates relief from which independent schools benefit.

Mr Sunak attended Winchester College in Hampshire, one of the UK’s top and most expensive private schools where fees for day pupils are more than £36,000 per year and boarders pay almost £50,000, according to its website.

The Prime Minister, speaking to BBC South Today during a round of regional broadcast interviews ahead of the Conservative Party conference, said: “Labour’s approach illustrates that they just don’t understand the aspiration of families like my parents who were working really hard.

“They wanted to do something for their kids that they thought would make a difference to them. Labour’s approach to that is to clamp down on it.

“They don’t understand the aspiration that people have to provide a better life for their kids.

“They want to punish them for that as part of some class war. I don’t think that is right.”

While he was serving as chancellor last year, the Prime Minister and his wife Akshata Murty were noted in Winchester College’s magazine as having donated £100,000 to the school where he had previously been head boy.

Keir Starmer
Keir Starmer Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has denied that his party is attacking private schools (Dominic Lipinski/PA)

The donations fund bursaries for children whose parents would not otherwise be able to send them there.

Shaun Fenton, headteacher at Sir Keir’s former school Reigate Grammar, said the Labour policy of abolishing VAT relief on school fees was “not going to help any child be better educated”.

Reigate Grammar in Surrey switched from being a state to an independent school while Sir Keir was in attendance.

Labour has said that, under arrangements made as part of the switch, Sir Keir’s family did not have to pay towards his education while he was studying there.

Mr Fenton, speaking to Times Radio, predicted the added tax would drive “thousands” of children into the state system, thereby decreasing the amount raised by it.

“Everyone knows this isn’t really going to raise any money and it’s not going to solve any education problems,” he said.

The party, citing a study by the Institute for Fiscal Studies think tank, believes changes to tax rules impacting private schools could raise as much as £1.5 billion per year.

Sir Keir, who has previously ruled out sending his own children to private school, has defended the VAT school fees policy.

Raac issues
Raac issues Labour has been accused on rowing back on stripping private schools of charitable status (James Manning/PA)

He told BBC’s Political Thinking podcast this week that it was about ensuring state schools are “just as good” as the independent alternative.

He also argued that private schools would not have to pass the additional costs on to parents in the form of increased fees.

Shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson reiterated those comments, saying private schools should look at where they could make “cutbacks” elsewhere.

Ms Phillipson, in comments made on Thursday, denied Labour had U-turned on stripping private schools of charitable status if it wins next year’s likely election.

The senior Labour MP told a Mumsnet online discussion that ending the charitable status of some independent schools was “not a necessary” part of Labour’s plan to curb their tax breaks

Labour insiders have insisted changes to charitable status had never been party policy but Ms Phillipson had previously spoken of doing so to “fund the most ambitious state school improvement plan in a generation”.

The Conservatives have accused Labour of backtracking on one of its major policies, with Chief Secretary to the Treasury John Glen saying it was having to admit that “their schools tax hike just doesn’t work”.

Asked during a conversation with Mumsnet whether she stood by her previous comments, Ms Phillipson said: “I’ve always been focused on how we end the tax breaks and how we then use that money to deliver high standards in our state schools.

“And ending charitable status was not a necessary part of doing that.

“We can press ahead with ending the tax breaks relatively quickly and then put that money into developing better outcomes for children.

“So the policy is unchanged in that regard.”