An empty classroom with desks and blue storage cupboards in the background

A UK election year is an opportunity to call out politicians and political parties who display cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is the tension that exists between an individual’s behaviour compared with their values or beliefs. Thus, an individual, or political party, may proclaim that they are passionate about working to mitigate the impacts of climate change and yet their behaviour may not align to this belief.

In a high-profile speech this week Sir Keir Starmer accused the government of trying to identify ‘woke agendas’ in British civic institutions. He highlighted criticism that had been made of the RNLI and the National Trust and proclaimed that the voice of charities had been ‘ignored’ and his mission was to create a Society of Service. This is a reworking of David Cameron’s Big Society initiative. This new Labour Party campaign is positioned around patriotism based around celebrating the many contributions made to UK society by charities and civic institutions.

I have a major problem with Starmer’s speech and the Labour Party’s new Society for Service agenda. Starmer accuses the Government as having become ‘tangled up in culture wars of their own making’ and that it ‘has demonised’ the RNLI. Really. But how does Starmer’s speech relate to cognitive dissonance? At the last Labour Party Conference, it was agreed that, if elected, one of the first acts of a new Labour Government would be to impose 20% VAT on independent school fees. The Labour Party has demonised independent schools and has always demonised them.

This new Labour Party campaign is positioned around patriotism based around celebrating the many contributions made to UK society by charities and civic institutions.

Professor John Bryson

It is important to remember that these independent schools are charities and are important UK civic institutions with histories that go back centuries. These are charities with an enviable history of providing service to society. And yet, to the Labour Party, these are suspect institutions that benefit the wealthy.

Avoiding Independent schools

Labour MPs are avoiding independent schools in this election year. The party seems to be trying to avoid an evidence informed debate of the many societal contributions that independent schools make to civic society. The Independent School Council undertakes an annual census of its 1,395 schools. In January 2023, this identified that these schools had 554,243 pupils and 61,803 were non-British pupils, or 11.2%. These schools are inclusive with 4 out of 10 pupils coming from a minority ethnic background. In addition, 103,337 pupils (18.6%) have special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).

All independent schools provide critical service to society. This includes 30% of pupils receiving some form of bursary with free places provided to some of the most vulnerable. In 2023, over 2,000 Ukrainian pupils attended UK independent schools with many being funded by the schools themselves. Every independent school is embedded within its local community providing wider societal benefits that range from sharing facilities with community members to supporting state schools.

Wider societal benefits

Like all charities, independent schools have always been in a precarious financial position. The majority of independent schools are not awash with cash and many parents make great sacrifices to pay school fees. Imposing VAT on school fees will result in three things. First, this highlights that Labour is demonising some charities; any talk of a society of service is one that excludes some civic institutions. Second, UK parents and their children will suffer.

Many will continue to pay school fees, but for these households there will be a major reduction in expenditure on other goods and services. This then will be a drag on economic growth. Third, a significant proportion of independent schools will close. Those in the Labour Party who demonise independent schools will celebrate each closure.

But remember the consequences of the closure of many of these schools. There will be additional demand for places in state schools and some of this will be SEND demand. No one has calculated the potential true costs and benefits of applying VAT to independent school fees. As some schools close, these costs include making teachers and support staff redundant, and the challenge of dealing with the many listed buildings that would become vacant. The closure of specialist independent music, dance and sports schools will destroy pupil career ambitions. It might be the case that the negatives far outweigh the taxation gain.

The key point to reflect upon is that sustainable economic growth requires diversity and this includes diversity in educational provision and opportunities. UK independent school make an important contribution to UK educational diversity. Any policy intended to undermine the financial viability of independent schools is one that works against educational diversity and sustainable and inclusive economic growth.