Independent School Fees: VAT

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:53 pm on 21 February 2024.

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Photo of Paul Scully Paul Scully Conservative, Sutton and Cheam 4:53, 21 February 2024

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Henderson. I congratulate my hon. Friend Andrew Lewer on securing this debate.

I draw the attention of the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I will declare an interest of three types: my partner is the headteacher at a prep school; she also owns a house that backs on to one of the best-performing state schools in Surrey, so inevitably her house price will go up when selection for that school becomes selection by house price rather than by academic achievement or fees; and I myself went to an independent school—my father paid a fortune for this accent.

I would say two things about this. Economically it is not sensible, and educationally it is not sensible either. Prep schools in particular are already a fragile ecosystem, and most have around 150 to 250 pupils. My hon. Friend the Member for Northampton South talked about an impact assessment of what happens if a few pupils drift away. I will tell hon. Members what happens if 10 or 15 pupils leave a fragile prep school. That school is perhaps not paying market price for its teachers’ salaries, and it has already opted out of the teachers’ pension scheme, which accounts for around 28% of salaries.

Independent schools are the only ones paying in—it is a Ponzi scheme—and some actuaries predict that that figure will go to 40% because there will be more failures. If 10 or 15 pupils leave that sort of school, it collapses. There will then be 150 pupils who have to get educated under the state system in that area, which may be a rural area with a small state school. There may be 1.1 million vacancies in state schools around the country, but they are not equally distributed: something like 20% of secondary schools are over capacity. Those are the best ones—the ones that people want to get into.

Prep schools are already fragile. Those that go up to 13 are already having to change their business models. This policy would be another nail in the coffin of pupils’ aspiration, as we have already heard. It would not lift life chances; it would just set one group of children over another. The small amount of money that that broad change will raise will not be as meaningful as the Labour party thinks. It is better to look for other, more collaborative ways, but let us not destroy the partnership working that we have heard about. Let us not destroy the work around using different sites, sporting facilities, expertise and skills.

The IFS report states that private schooling tends to be concentrated among those with the most income and wealth, but “tends to” is doing a lot of heavy lifting there. A lot of people struggle to ensure that their children get a better education, and we should reflect on that. The shadow Secretary of State for Education, Bridget Phillipson, should go out and meet some headteachers.