Navigating Educational Economics: Why VAT on School Fees Misses the Mark

Navigating Educational Economics: Why VAT on School Fees Misses the Mark

An open letter from Sarah Norville, Independent School Head, explaining why Labour’s VAT proposal undermines the education of all children

The policy of VAT on Independent School fees has been a wolf on the horizon for a number of years. Now that this particular wolf is prowling at the edges of our school grounds, as leaders in the Independent sector, we have to plan for this uncertain future. The difficulty at present is that it is very hard to plan for something that is not clearly defined. Early indications suggest that the proposed VAT rate is to be in the region of 20% which for many smaller schools, parents and pupils, could very challenging.

As the Headmistress of a small, one form entry school, the prospect of VAT on fees is a cause for concern. Keir Starmer says that he wants our Independent Schools to “thrive”, despite the addition of VAT. In a recent BBC interview, Mr Starmer commented that schools don’t have to pass the addition of VAT onto parents which for small schools like mine feels unrealistic and impossible. When a small school works to such tight margins, it is unfeasible to expect that this additional financial burden is going to be able to be entirely borne by the school. Our fees, compared to our local competitors (all of whom are part of much bigger schools that go through to 18) are low. The families we attract are identical to many of the families in our neighbouring State Schools; both parents are working full time, they live in ‘normal’ houses and drive non-extravagant cars. They do not fit the caricature of a Private School Parent as portrayed in the media. They work hard and make financial sacrifices to enable them to choose this type of education for their child. The addition of VAT on fees might push them straight into an already very overcrowded State sector. Whilst my school may gain from parents further up the fee food chain, who move to us for a more economical option, I worry that the exodus to the State sector will be rapid and incredibly damaging.

I have spent 11 years of Headship in the State sector and am currently in my 6th year as an Independent School Head. The difference between the two is stark. This current debate has prompted me to reflect on what it is that those outside the sector seem to be so angry about, and what the State sector can do to close this ever-widening gap between Independent and State outcomes.

The most obvious difference that is always cited is class size. This has, I believe, the biggest impact on outcomes for each child. What a teacher can achieve for each child in a class of 15 is hugely different to what he or she can achieve from each child in a class of 30. I take parents on tours every week where they are looking to move from State to Independent because of the class sizes. They talk about their child being lost in the middle, or their child having a special educational need that is not quite ‘special’ enough to warrant extra help. If parents have the means to move their child to a school like mine, the difference is noticeable almost instantly.

I do understand that there is a need to close the achievement and opportunity gap between the State and Independent sectors. VAT on fees is not going to do it. Those who currently pay fees will choose to do so in a different way.

Whilst we would all want our State School class sizes to be smaller, this isn’t the current model and even a large injection of cash from VAT on fees won’t make this possible. There would have to be a significant, nationwide building programme to put in the classrooms and resources to accommodate the move to smaller class sizes. There would need to be significant recruitment, which is already an issue for State Schools. When you add in the pupils who will be joining State Schools from the Independent Sector, class sizes will only get bigger, not smaller, creating even greater problems. Whilst there is a cap of 30 pupils in Key Stage One, no such cap exists further up the school, meaning classes of 33 or more are already commonplace.

The curriculum in my current school was one of the main things that attracted me to work in this sector. As a State School Head I was sick of making my children jump through Maths and English shaped hoops. My school was judged by OFSTED, who judged us on our SATs results, which meant we needed to maintain those standards by spending more time doing maths and English than anything else. Yes, we would teach in a cross curricular way to try to shoehorn a History objective into what was essentially an English lesson, but it’s English they were learning, with a few Historical facts on the side.

ISI, the branch of OFSTED who inspect Independent Schools, are looking at a much broader range of outcomes. There are no results as such, no data to scrutinise and compare. What is important is that each child has a rich, relevant and varied curriculum taught to them each and every week. My children still have maths and English every day, but they also have History and Geography every week (not alternating terms as they do in many State schools). Science, Computing, French, Drama, Spanish, RE, Art, Design Technology, Forest School and Life Skills are all taught throughout the week, mostly by specialist teachers. More crucially for children’s overall health and concentration, there are 3 PE lessons every week, plus swimming and, if you choose, ballet.

Unless there is a significant change to how OFSTED inspects schools, these essential curriculum changes are not something that are going to happen in the State sector. If OFSTED were to change its focus, these are not changes that would cost a great deal of money. Our State sector is full of incredibly talented, dedicated teachers who would relish the opportunity for the SATs handcuffs to come off and to be allowed to teach what children actually need to learn, not what they need to learn in order to get at least a ‘good’ grade at the next inspection.

What is also commented on by prospective parents when they visit my school is how confident and self assured the children are. This is true, but it’s not something that comes naturally or easily to all of them. It is taught and worked at and reinforced. We can do this because we have fewer children in our classes and we have time, through lessons like Speech and Drama, to show them how to do it. This is absolutely something that State Schools can, and do, do. It’s just much harder in a larger class, with a wide range of needs that it is essential to support before taking the time to talk about how you talk to grown ups.

I do understand that there is a need to close the achievement and opportunity gap between the State and Independent sectors. VAT on fees is not going to do it. Those who currently pay fees will choose to do so in a different way; they will move to a property next to an Outstanding School. Those who are less like the parents at my school and more like the stereotypical Independent School parent will be able to afford the VAT, and in the larger schools where there is already a greater spend on VAT, more of this will be able to be offset and less passed onto the parents. The gap will get wider, not narrower.

We already have a Bursary system in this sector and there are children in every Independent School who pay no fees at all. If Mr Starmer really wants our Independent Schools to thrive, and to close the gap, why not insist on a % of children eligible for the Pupil Premium (free school meals) who should be offered 100% bursaries? Most of the parents in my school are ‘first time buyers’. They did not go to an Independent School themselves, but they aspire to work hard to make this choice for their own child. There is no incentive to aspire to this in the future if you are priced completely out of the market.

Whilst not everyone likes the fact that parents have choice based on what they can afford, this is what governs the house we live in, the car we drive and where we go on our holidays. If the Government decided to stipulate that, from now on, all families had to go on holiday to Cornwall every summer, there would be uproar. Don’t get me wrong, Cornwall is a gorgeous place to go on holiday. However, if the entire population turned up there every Summer, the infrastructure would not cope, those who already live in Cornwall would be even more furious than they already are each summer and most people would end up staying at home, choosing not to go on holiday at all. Whilst this is a slightly flippant analogy, I am trying to demonstrate that the current choice available to parents ensures that the system as a whole works.

Ultimately, there seems to be very little that can be done about this Labour policy and, it would appear, it is very likely to become reality. What Heads of small schools like mine must now do is think creatively, plan ahead and ensure that the superb education we currently offer remains attainable to the wonderfully diverse group of families that I currently serve.

If you feel that you would like add your voice in support of preventing this Labour policy moving forward, please sign the petition that targets the Labour leadership team.

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