Independent School Fees: VAT

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:57 pm on 21 February 2024.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 4:57, 21 February 2024

Congratulations, Mr Henderson; it is a pleasure to serve under your chairship. I also congratulate Andrew Lewer on raising the issue.

In Northern Ireland, schooling is slightly different, in that we still have a transfer test that allows entrants into grammar schools. For that reason, there is not as great a preference for private schools as there would be were grammar schools to be removed. However, I am thankful that the DUP, with a now-working Assembly, has a Minister in place to protect the education system and retain grammar education for people of all classes and backgrounds.

To declare an interest, back in the ’60s—I probably go back further than nearly anybody in the Chamber—my mum and dad sent me to a boarding school in Coleraine, which gave me five years of good education. I am incredibly indebted to my mum and dad. In the ’60s especially, we had no holidays, and our car was an old banger that was kept forever—just so that their sons could have an education. I thank them for that. It gave me a great chance in this world, and I appreciate it.

Taxing private schools out of existence is not the route to take. The education of children is charitable in the extreme, and the only profits that are made are found in well-rounded children and well-paid teaching staff, which should be the goal of every school. That is what we should be looking at—nothing else. We should not achieve that goal by raising fees to such an extent that only the most elite can afford schooling, as in schools in Switzerland, for example.

The boarding school on the periphery of my constituency of Strangford is Rockport School, in North Down constituency. It draws a number of international students to its doors. That can only be good for the local area. It also generates money, cultural exchange and social engagement. I would hate to see that great school—its headteacher, Mr George Vance, cut his teeth at our local grammar school, Regent House, in my constituency —left in a position in which fees rise at an exorbitant rate and the benefits of the school are lost. That would be a tragedy.

There are 16 private schools registered in Northern Ireland, and there is a role for the sector. The work that they do deserves support; we should not set out to tear the sector down by stealth taxation. I am a believer in the public school system. My boys all went to Glastry high school, my granddaughters go to the local integrated school and my grandsons are in the local primary school. I have faith in the schooling system, but that does not mean that I want to abolish the smaller subsidised schools. The VAT proposal is not only aimed against the ultra-wealthy. It will go much further than that, which concerns me. With great respect to what Labour is putting forward, I am concerned that it will have a detrimental effect on the education and economy of this great nation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.