Family & Education

Let’s talk schools: Labour’s VAT policy could spell disaster

The party needs to refine its flagship proposal to take account of independent faith schools


Pardes House Grammar - one of the many independent schools serving the Strictly Orthodox community

The other week I participated in a panel discussion about religion across the parties’ election manifestos. I was surprised to hear that Theos thinktank found that only 14 per cent of voters view education as a key concern in the run up to elections.

If as most parties agree, education is the silver bullet (Conservatives), spark to light transformation (Labour) or the best investment we can make in our country’s future (Liberal Democrat), then surely it should be treated as such.

Education proposals range from enforcing bans on mobile phones (Conservatives) to reforming Ofsted inspections (Liberal Democrats), while Labour’s particularly ambitious education policies require significant funding. They intend to raise £1.5 billion as a result of the pledge that “Labour will end the VAT exemption and business rates relief for private schools to invest in our state schools.” This has become a flagship issue and is part of their suite of ideas to “break down barriers to opportunity”.

The merit to these plans can be debated, but for Jewish schools it is certainly problematic, and rather than breaking down barriers presents the very real danger of limiting opportunity. According to Department for Education figures this month, 10 per cent of all schools are registered as independent, yet for our Jewish schools, this figure is almost 60 per cent. Of the almost 20,000 Jewish children in independent Jewish schools, the vast majority do not have an alternative option in the state sector that is culturally and religiously appropriate for them.

Should independent Jewish schools shut down as a result of Labour’s measures, there will be nowhere for the children to go. Opening new faith state schools for them to attend is also far from straightforward as this would require relinquishing of control over curriculum content and admissions which are key concerns.

For the schools to pass on the increased costs associated with the removal of the VAT exemption, families who may already send five children to an independent school will be faced with an increase equivalent to sending a sixth child. Something that they cannot afford.

Additionally, the removal of business rates relief will further see these schools already registered as charities faced with an increased cost amounting to hundreds of thousands of pounds and the demarcation of a two-tier system in the charity sector, actively creating barriers for Jewish children to access an education that is most suitable for them.

Without creating a faith exemption, there are solutions to implementing the VAT policy and preventing the unintended consequence with the appearance of targeting faith schools. One option is to calculate the average cost to the state of educating a child, around £8-10,000 and charging VAT on any amount above this.

Alternately, focus on the individual by creating a formula to take into account family income, school fees or family size to preserve parental choice for Jewish families and others whose only option is their community independent school.

The removal of business rates relief is a tougher nut to crack and so far, we have yet to find solutions that will properly mitigate their disastrous impact.

For schools in the state sector, the provision of free breakfast clubs for all primary schools is another policy that needs scrutiny. The current government funding (even with the short term top up from the Mayor of London) does not cover the cost for kosher free school meals. Unless Labour plans to dramatically increases funding for all these policies, schools will also have to subsidise this pledge from an existing budget that is already near breaking point.

Should Labour form the next government, we entreat them to conduct a proper equalities impact assessment (even if not strictly required) before implementing these policies to really examine whether they deliver to offer our Jewish children “a better future”.

Raisel Freedman is assistant director of PaJeS

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