The latest interesting work from the ever-excellent Institute for Fiscal Studies is an investigation into the Labour Party’s plan to abolish the tax exemptions private schools enjoy.
I was lucky enough to be able to give a talk to the private school association of bursars earlier this year, and warned them that this time Labour is serious and will use its campaign on Equality of Opportunity to justify the end of the very generous charitable tax breaks that private schools enjoy.
The overwhelming feeling seemed to be from the bursars that this was terribly unfair and would force thousands of pupils into the state sector which would cost the government more than it raised in revenue. The IFS makes it clear that is very unlikely to be the case and the measures will raise at least £1.3 billion a year to spend on poor and disadvantaged students.
Given that private schools now spend 90% more per pupil than state schools do, up from 40% in 2010 and that private schools have managed to increase their fees for decades without it hitting demand, this seems reasonable.
That also explains why the charitable status of private schools is now very hard to justify.
First, school fees rise all the time – up 55% in real terms in 20 years – and that money buys the wealthy a great opportunity for their children, at the expense of the rest of the country. The children of the wealthy therefore benefit from the best education available, and that education is subsidised by millions of taxpayers who could never afford to buy the advantages it brings for their children.
Second, how charitable are these schools? Wellington was set up to educate the sons of Army officers, its charitable charter doubtless says it still does, but it doesn’t really. Eton is apparently supposed to be educating the poor boys of Windsor – yes, right.
And so on and so on. Just handing a few scholarships to the middle-class people clever enough to sniff them out or 10% off £35,000 a year in fees is not charity, not when you are educating thousands of children whose parents pay through the nose to give them a great advantage over the poor.
Third, almost 50% of Oxbridge places still go to the 7% from private schools. This means that 93% of people are being shafted by the 7%.
It also means that all those top jobs in the law, the media, business, and the civil service are going to a small group who happened to get a better start in life because their parents were wealthy.
We are wasting the talents of 93% of the population and we are giving tax breaks to the rich so they can do that. This is not a level playing field.
When you have smaller classes, better food, better facilities, better sports grounds and science labs, and better teachers; you have won before you even start.
A new government should not just end the ridiculous tax breaks these institutions enjoy. Why not go further and hold them to their charitable charters too?
Why not tell Oxford and Cambridge to attract the best, not just the best at gaming their entrance system, which has been going on for hundreds of years? You might have thought Oxbridge, being full of very intelligent people, might have noticed they are attracting 50% of their students from 7% of the population, or do they just believe that rich people’s children are cleverer?
No country can afford to waste the talent that is being lost through this rigged education system, and the UK definitely can’t any longer.