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28 September 2023

Does Labour now support private schools?

Starmer’s acceptance of private schools’ charitable status indicates an appetite for mild reform rather than ideological opposition.

By Freddie Hayward

Labour is trimming its plans for government to ward off Tory attacks and de-risk Keir Starmer’s route to No 10. Its latest move is to cancel plans to end private schools’ charitable status, which the party promised to do in June last year. Labour has played down the importance of the decision, claiming that removing charitable status is more complicated than it’s worth. The substantive reforms would still happen: a Labour government would still impose VAT on fees and cut business rates relief. But the tax expert Dan Neidle has pointed out that charitable status allows private schools to claim tax relief on donations. In other words, this U-turn does mean Labour will tax private schools less than it had said it would.

So why the change? There has been talk in recent weeks about the risk of alienating aspirational parents whose ambition is to send their children to private schools. Even though private school is becoming further out of reach for most parents – the average fee-paying school charges about £15,200 a year – there’s a fear among politicians about being seen to close opportunities off. Private schools are not the battle the party wants to have in the run up to the next election. Starmer has denied launching an “attack on private schools” to the BBC, adding that he is “very comfortable with private schools”. This is the language of mild reform to the education sector instead of ideological opposition to the inequality created by a two-tier education system. The thinking, like so much going on within Labour at the moment, is to avoid appearing radical.

The move might also signal a new strategy with regards Rishi Sunak. In general, Labour has tried to paint the Prime Minister – who went to the public school Winchester College – as “out of touch”, not least because of his immense wealth. Some thought this would be especially effective in a cost-of-living crisis. But for now at least, Labour has decided it’s best to avoid the perception that it’s pulling down those at the top of society.

[See also: Rishi Sunak’s endgame: attack everything]

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