VAT on Private Schools; is your MP for or against it?

One of the headline items of Kier Starmer's 2024 election campaign is the proposed introduction of VAT on Independent School fees. Much is being said in the media on the subject, and most of it is being distilled down to a few soundbites. But a calmer, fuller discourse on the subject took place in a debate in Parliament in February 2024. If you want to understand the views of both MP's and Parties, it's the best place to start.

These screenshots show who spoke in the debate. The length of the lines represents the length of their contribution. You can see that the Tories had the most to say on the subject.

Screen Shot of Debate from Quick Politics Phone App
List of Speakers in the debate (1)
Screen Shot of Debate from Quick Politics Phone App
List of Speakers in the Debate (2)

There is a lot of anecdotal colour in the debate. Jim Shannon talks about how his parents drove an old banger and never went on holiday to fund his education. Suella Braverman talks about how her immigrant parents scrimped and saved to get her into a small independent school, and from there she got into Cambridge. But (as is often the case) the thing that interests me is the rather dubious maths behind some of the numbers.

Helen Hayes (the Shadow Education Minister) asserts that average state school spending is £8,000 per pupil, and she compares this with the average independent school fees of £15,200 per pupil. These same numbers have been re-used and repeated in the media many times. It is at the heart of the Labour Party's argument.

But they don't feel right to me. I have observed wonderful building projects taking place in my local state schools, and, knowing that these things cost many, many millions of pounds, it seems unlikely to me that they are included in the £8,000 quoted. It also seems unlikely to me, that when teacher pensions are increased, the school bears the cost of that alone without any additional support from the government. In short, I think that state schools have other sources of government income. Whereas Independent Schools have that single fee income to fund not only daily running costs, but also fund all repairs and development to infrastructure.

So I looked at other debates in the QuickPolitics app for supporting information.

Screen Shot of what Helen Hayes said in a debate on the QuickPolitics app
Helen Hayes asserts the State School cost of £8000

Certainly in this extract (see screenshot) from the debate in September 2023 about RAAC concrete in schools, Gillian Keegan makes it clear that extra funding will be given to state schools to cover mitigation work to buildings.

Screenshot showing what Gillian Keegan said about RAAC
Gillian Keegan confirms extra funding for RAAC

The state schools building programme is big. 500 schools are being re-built. £13 Billion is budgeted for improving and replacing buildings.

Screenshot from a debate in Parliament detailing the budget to rebuild schools
Gillian Keegan states £13Bn is allocated for improving and replacing school buildings

So this all begs the question, what is the £8,000 figure quoted? Well I have found an IFS report which states secondary state school funding in 23/24 was £7600/pupil . But note that the IFS report clarifies that this figure only relates to Day to Day spending. Incidentally, this £7,600 includes additional funding that has been allocated to schools to over increased employer contributions to the Teacher's Pension Scheme.

IFS chart showing expenditure per state school pupil
IFS Chart showing annual spend per state school pupil
Screenshot from the IFS website stating that the £8000 figure excludes capital

So this all leads me to wonder what the £8,000 "should" be. Independent Schools have to renew and replace and repair buildings too. Can somebody please come up with a number that covers the same things that Independent School fees have to cover?!

Whether you think the proposed policy is sanity or madness will depend on many things. Personally, I thought David Simmond's contribution to the debate was sensible. Housing a child is different from educating a child. A VAT policy which targeted the wealthy public boarding schools but cut some slack for the impecunious independent day schools feels closer to the middle ground. Which statistically, is of course where most of us sit.

Statement from David Simmons shared from QuickPolitics app
Contribution to Debate by David Simmonds
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