Charity cases: an assembly at Eton College. Photo: Getty
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Forget Tristram Hunt’s tinkering: private schools should have their tax breaks scrapped altogether

Private schools allow the privileged to buy their way into every structure of power in this country with barely a whisper from the rest of us. Why give them tax relief as charities when so many do next to nothing to earn it?   

Last night, it emerged that Labour plans to tell private schools to do more to help state schools - or lose the £700m tax relief they get for supposedly doing that already. This morning, the Telegraph opted for a front-page splash declaring “class war”. Hmm, I wonder why politicians don’t address the issue of private schools more often.

Last year I called private-school tax relief – and their wider charity status – characteristic of the “collective amnesia”  this country has around the private-school system: we are fully aware of the unfairness but few of us are willing to do anything about it. If there was any doubt, have a glance at the coverage of Labour education spokesman Tristram Hunt’s proposals this morning. Forget the existence of private schools generally, even discussing the tax relief given to them gets the right-wing media into the sort of frenzy that should be saved for full-scale communism with a black lesbian president. 

But then, why wouldn’t they? When the status quo is working out well for you, the thought of losing even the smallest crumbs of your cake is going to be terrifying. And let’s not underestimate this: the status quo is working out really well for some. Just 7 per cent of the British public attended private school. But they make up 71 per cent of senior judges, 62 per cent of senior armed forces officers, 55 per cent of Whitehall permanent secretaries and 50 per cent of members of the House of Lords – and 43 per cent of newspaper columnists. Private school pupils are 55 times more likely to be offered a place at Oxbridge. Those who went to a fee-paying school are currently earning almost a fifth more than those whose parents did not pay for their schooling, according to a recent study by the Sutton Trust. In essence, already disadvantaged children are being priced out of university places, influential jobs and high incomes. But clearly, removing a tax exemption and thereby adding a couple of hundred pounds a year to private school fees is the real injustice

Tristram Hunt’s proposals do not even threaten a complete removal of tax exemption from private schools. He is simply saying they have to start doing more for the privilege. As it stands, a private school can claim up to an 80 per cent cut in its business rates (conditional on meeting minimum standards of partnership with the state sector). Yet just 3 per cent of private schools sponsor an academy and only a further 5 per cent loan teaching staff to state schools. Two-thirds don’t even share facilities. We are, I assume, simply not supposed to mention this. To throw them their tax breaks with a respectful and chipper tip of the hat. Private schools buy their way into every structure of power in this country with barely a whisper from the rest of us. It seems entirely consistent to give them tax relief status while letting them do next to nothing to earn it.     

As the BBC points out, Hunt’s proposals are one thing but the bigger challenge is removing private school’s charitable status altogether. I am not sure how schools that actively harm less advantaged children have convinced the rest of us they are charitable. Perhaps my definition of charity is different – although there is something suitably patronising about the old network bestowing treats for the deserving comprehensive poor (a sponsorship there, a loaned science lab here). Forget politely asking them to help out the working class when they get a minute, any government that has the slightest concern for inequality should remove the private school system’s tax breaks altogether.

After all, tax relief for private schools is essentially like watching a thief take your TV and asking him if he’d like your iPad. “You’ve only prevented my chance to watch television. Are you sure you wouldn’t like to have a go at my internet, too?” 

Private schools are mechanisms of vast inequality that actively worsen the life chances of already disadvantaged children and they want us to thank them for it. This might be a sign of their view of state education but – exactly how stupid do they think we are?

Frances Ryan is a journalist and political researcher. She writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman, and others on disability, feminism, and most areas of equality you throw at her. She has a doctorate in inequality in education. Her website is here.

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Forget the progressive alliance - it was the voters wot won it in Richmond

The Labour candidate on how voters have acted tactically for decades.

The Richmond Park by-election is both a triumph and a setback for the concept of an anti-Tory progressive alliance. As the Labour candidate, I was bombarded with emails and tweets saying I ought to stand down to prevent Zac Goldsmith being re-elected long after it was technically impossible for me to do so even if I had wanted to. I was harangued at a meeting organised by Compass, at which I found myself the lonely voice defending Labour's decision to put up a candidate.

I was slightly taken aback by the anger of some of those proposing the idea, but I did not stand for office expecting an easy ride. I told the meeting that while I liked the concept of a progressive alliance, I did not think that should mean standing down in favour of a completely unknown and inexperienced Lib Dem candidate, who had been selected without any reference to other parties. 

The Greens, relative newbies to the political scene, had less to lose than Labour, which still wants to be a national political party. Consequently, they told people to support the Lib Dems. This all passed off smoothly for a while, but when Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Greens came to Richmond to actively support the Lib Dems, it was more than some of her local party members could stomach. 

They wrote to the Guardian expressing support for my campaign, pointing out that I had a far better, long-established reputation as an environmentalist than the Lib Dem candidate. While clearly that ultimately did little to boost my vote, this episode highlighted one of the key problems about creating a progressive alliance. Keeping the various wings of the Labour party together, especially given the undisciplined approach of the leader who, as a backbencher, voted 428 times during the 13 years of Labour government in the 1990s and 2000s, is hard enough. Then consider trying to unite the left of the Greens with the right of the Lib Dems. That is not to include various others in this rainbow coalition such as nationalists and ultra-left groups. Herding cats seems easy by contrast.

In the end, however, the irony was that the people decided all by themselves. They left Labour in droves to vote out Goldsmith and express their opposition to Brexit. It was very noticeable in the last few days on the doorstep that the Lib Dems' relentless campaign was paying dividends. All credit to them for playing a good hand well. But it will not be easy for them to repeat this trick in other constituencies. 

The Lib Dems, therefore, did not need the progressive alliance. Labour supporters in Richmond have been voting tactically for decades. I lost count of the number of people who said to me that their instincts and values were to support Labour, but "around here it is a wasted vote". The most revealing statistic is that in the mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan received 24 per cent of first preferences while Caroline Pidgeon, the Lib Dem candidate got just 7 per cent. If one discounts the fact that Khan was higher profile and had some personal support, this does still suggest that Labour’s real support in the area is around 20 per cent, enough to give the party second place in a good year and certainly to get some councillors elected.

There is also a complicating factor in the election process. I campaigned strongly on opposing Brexit and attacked Goldsmith over his support for welfare cuts, the bedroom tax and his outrageous mayoral campaign. By raising those issues, I helped undermine his support. If I had not stood for election, then perhaps a few voters may have kept on supporting him. One of my concerns about the idea of a progressive alliance is that it involves treating voters with disdain. The implication is that they are not clever enough to make up their mind or to understand the restrictions of the first past the post system. They are given less choice and less information, in a way that seems patronising, and smacks of the worst aspects of old-fashioned Fabianism.

Supporters of the progressive alliance will, therefore, have to overcome all these objections - in addition to practical ones such as negotiating the agreement of all the parties - before being able to implement the concept. 

Christian Wolmar is an award winning writer and broadcaster specialising in transport. He was shortlisted as a Labour mayoral candidate in the 2016 London election, and stood as Labour's candidate in the Richmond Park by-election in December 2016.