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 planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.