Independent School Fees: VAT

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:50 pm on 21 February 2024.

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Photo of Munira Wilson Munira Wilson Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Education) 4:50, 21 February 2024

Thank you very much, Mr Henderson; it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate Andrew Lewer on securing this debate.

My Liberal Democrat colleagues and I aspire to a scenario in which the offering in all our state schools is so high—so superior—that parents do not feel compelled to send their children to the independent sector. It would be an education system that enables every individual, no matter their background or their needs, to flourish, succeed and fulfil their potential, wherever they are educated. But as liberals, we are also a party that has always championed choice, and it is important that parents are able to choose where their children are educated, and independent schools should always be one of those choices.

Let me be clear: we do not support ending the VAT exemption for independent schools, for the very simple reason that we do not support taxing education. As we have already heard, all education provided by an eligible body, including university education, music lessons and tutoring sessions, are exempt from VAT, and we would not want VAT or any other tax to be charged on any of these things. However, there needs to be a quid pro quo. Independent schools should give back to their local community, in order to retain that right; and, as we have heard, many already do. There are many excellent examples of collaborative work around the country. In my own constituency, Hampton School and Lady Eleanor Holles School have an exemplary partnership with Reach Academy in Feltham, sharing staff time, and mentoring and coaching of pupils for medical school and other university places. The relationship is about partnership and sharing not just swimming pools and theatre spaces but, as I have said, specialist teachers and specialist facilities.

That sort of ingrained partnership work benefits both the state sector and the independent sector, and it needs to become the norm for all. Removing the VAT exemption from independent schools would reduce partnership work and also hit parents who have felt that, for whatever reason, the state sector cannot meet their children’s needs, especially if they have additional needs but do not have an EHCP. I know of many examples of parents who have scrimped and saved, or used a little bit of inheritance that they may have had from their own parents, to send their child, who is not thriving in a state school, to the independent sector, where they are able to thrive. As we have heard, many independent schools are not the Etons, the Winchesters or the Harrows; many are small schools with fewer than 400 pupils.

We should all aspire to make the best investment we can in education and to make every school as good as possible. Taxing education is not the way to achieve that goal.