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Labour has let the cat out of bag – and every parent should be worried

In Europe
June 10, 2024

To be fair to Emily Thornberry, at least she answered the question. Until yesterday, I had asked no less than four shadow ministers the same thing on my Sunday morning GB News politics show:

“How are you going to accommodate private school pupils into the already oversubscribed state sector if their parents can no longer afford the fees under a future Labour government?”

The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) has forecast that Labour imposing 20 per cent VAT on private school fees (and stripping private schools of business rate relief) could result in three to seven per cent of privately educated pupils switching to state schools as a result – up to 40,000 children.

Shadow minister after shadow minister refused to answer the question of what will happen to them, insisting that talk of an exodus had been overblown by vested interests – even though the IFS is completely independent. Wes Streeting, Yvette Cooper, Liz Kendall and even Bridget Phillipson, the woman hoping to be the next education secretary, appeared unable to provide a practical solution, preferring instead to blame “scaremongering from the private schools lobby” for the critical response to a policy Sir Keir Starmer had insisted will be implemented “straight away” if he wins the keys to Downing Street next month.

Then the shadow attorney general let the cat out of the bag by admitting that the policy does indeed risk increasing class sizes in the state sector. She was surprisingly relaxed about it considering she belongs to a party that has consistently railed against “Tory cuts” to the education sector and teacher shortages.

“Certainly, some schools that have vacancies [may take ex-private pupils]. My primary schools and my secondary schools have space and they’re very welcome”, said Thornberry, who is hoping to be re-elected as the Labour MP for Islington South and Finsbury on July 4. 

“They are good schools and people should send their children there. I mean, it’s fine, and if we have to, in the short term, have larger classes, we have larger classes.”

So now we are finally closer to the truth.

Labour hopes the policy will raise £1.7 billion, which it has pledged to spend on recruiting 6,500 new state school teachers (it’s going to need them) rolling out a new national “oracy” programme and ensuring all state schools in England have access to mental health counselling. (Curiously, Labour has said nothing about the mental health of private school pupils who will be affected by this policy).

But the truth Thornberry has exposed is that it will inevitably come at a cost. Teaching unions are already agitating over potential redundancies after two independent schools announced they will close at the end of the summer term – both blamed in part on Labour’s VAT plan.

Labour hoped this was a policy only the “privileged” would have to worry about. But the impact on all parents – including those who send their children to state schools (and note to the left: my son attends a state school) – has now been laid bare. It is certainly a dramatic departure from how Labour fought and won a general election in 1997. Back then, privately educated Tony Blair made five clear pledges to the electorate, the first of which was to cut class sizes to 30 or under for 5, 6 and 7-year-olds.

Amid a 2007 row over his then Communities Secretary Ruth Kelly sending one of her children to a £15,000-a-year private school for pupils with learning difficulties, Blair made it clear he supported “the right of parents to choose the school they send their children to”.

“What the Prime Minister supports absolutely is the right of parents to make choices about their children’s education which are best suited to their children’s needs irrespective of who their parents are or what job they do,” a spokesman said.

How times have changed.

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