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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Banishing safe seats, and other proposals to bridge the democratic divide

How to improve key areas of democracy.

Labour’s election train is finally pulling into the station, with its new leader announced in just over a fortnight. However, a summer absorbed in the party’s internal democracy has obscured a deeper truth confronting the country: the general election confirmed that unequal political participation rates in the UK – by age, class, ethnicity and region– have become increasingly hardwired into how our democracy operates.

IPPR’s new report underscores the scale of the democratic divide.  For example, less than half of 18-24 year olds voted, compared to nearly four-fifths of the over-65s, while three-quarters of "AB" individuals cast a ballot, against just over half of "DE" registered voters. Critically, this marks a sharp rise in turnout inequality over time. In 1987, for example, turnout rates by class were almost identical but have steadily diverged since.

Similarly, age-based differences have got significantly worse over time. In 1964 turnout for 18-24 year olds was 76.4 per cent, almost matching the 76.7 per cent turnout rate of those aged 65 or over. By 2005 only 38.2 per cent of 18-24 year olds voted against 74.3 per cent of 65+ year olds, with only a very slight improvement this year.

Underlying growing disparities of electoral voice are striking divergences in perceptions of the fairness and effectiveness of our democracy. For example, IPPR/YouGov polling suggests a striking 63 per cent of "DE" individuals think that our democratic system serves their interests badly, while "AB" voters are evenly split.

Given these signs of democratic distress, there remains a strong case for establishing a wide-ranging constitutional convention to reset how our democracy operates. Yet Westminster shows no appetite for such constitutional reformation, and there would only be so much a civil society-led convention could achieve in terms of practical change.

In our report we therefore propose a series of achievable reforms that could update the civic, institutional and technological architecture of our democracy in the here and now, with the explicit goal of ensuring that all voices are better heard in the political process.

On electoral reform, while we reiterate our support for proportional representation for national elections, we know this simply isn’t going to happen this Parliament. We had a referendum on change in 2011 and it was heavily lost. The energies of electoral reformers should therefore focus on extending PR in local government, where it is more obviously in the self-interest of the major parties, as a means of extending their geographical reach.

In addition, the reduction in the number of MPs provides an opportunity to chip away at the number of safe seats. More than half of seats are "safe", a number that has grown over time, even allowing for the electoral earthquake in Scotland. Safe seats typically have lower levels of participation, lower turnout rates, and less electorally powerful voters. While safe seats will always be with us in a first-past-the-post system, too many can be damaging to democracy.

Given this, we have recommended that the various Boundary Commissions of the UK be given a new duty to consider the electoral competitiveness of seats – ie. to tilt against the creation of safe seats – when boundaries are redrawn. The priority would be to meet their current duties of ensuring the geographic coherence of a seat and roughly equal electorates.

However, where these duties can be met we suggest that the Commissions should consider revising boundaries to reduce the number of safe seats, as a step to increasing participation and the voting power of the average elector. Of course, this will clearly not "abolish" all safe seats – nor should it  but it could help re-empower millions of voters currently with little meaningful say over the outcome of elections and force political parties to up their game in safe seats.

At the same time, the transition to the individual electoral registration process risks excluding millions from the franchise, people who are disproportionately younger, poorer or from an ethnic minority. For example, there are clear inequalities by age and ethnicity in terms of who is registered to vote: in the 2010 general election, for which figures are most accurate, 90 per cent of people aged 55-64 were registered, compared to 55 per cent of those aged 18-24, while nearly 20 per cent of BME individuals were not registered to vote, compared to only 7 per cent of the "white British" population.

There are simple steps the government could take to ensure all who are eligible are able to vote: extending the registration deadline to December 2016, and making support available to local authorities to assist registration efforts, weighted towards authorities with higher levels of under-registration, could help reduce inequalities.  In the longer term, electoral registration officers should be given new duties, and the Electoral Commission more powers, to drive up registration rates, with a particular focus on presently under-registered demographics. 

Finally, we recommend introducing a Democracy Commission. At present, the Electoral Commission effectively regulates elections and party funding. Democracy, however, is far richer and broader than electoral processes. It is about formal representation, but also about participation and deliberation, in what Marc Stears has called "everyday democracy".

A statutorily independent Democracy Commission could give institutional ballast to the latter and help reinvigorate democratic life by providing research, resources and capacity-building to facilitate local, civil society-led initiatives that aim to increase broad-based levels of powerful democratic participation or deliberation in collective decision-making processes.

For example, a Democracy Commission could work with the GLA to introduce participatory budgeting in London, assist the Greater Manchester Combined Authority in instituting a public deliberative body with real teeth over how to integrate health and social care in the area, help the Scottish government conduct citizens’ juries on the future constitutional shape of the country, or support civil-society experiments to bring people closer to collective political decision-making processes in their locality.

We are living in a paradoxical political era, where growing political inequality is accompanied by ongoing social and technological change that has the capacity to collapse unnecessary political and economic hierarchies and build a more inclusive, participatory and responsive democracy. However, there is no guarantee that the age of the network will necessarily lead to democratic revival. The institutions and technologies of our political system, products of the 19th century, are struggling in the fluidity and fracture of the 21st century, inhibiting democratic renewal.

With our economy post-industrial, our ways of communicating increasingly digital and more networked, our identities and relationships ever more variegated and complex, it is therefore critical public policy seeks to update the democratic infrastructure of the UK, and, in so doing, help reverse entrenched political inequality.

Such an agenda is vital. If we simply accept the current institutional arrangements of our political system as the limits of our ambition, we must also content ourselves to live in a divided – and therefore inherently partial – democracy. Yet our democracy is not immutable but malleable, and capable of being reformed for the better; reform today can make democratic life more equal. After all, the story of British democracy’s evolution is one of yesterday’s impossible becoming today’s ordinary.

Mathew Lawrence is a research fellow at IPPR and the co-author of "The Democracy Commission: Reforming democracy to combat political inequality". He tweets at @dantonshead.