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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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.