Family & Education

What price would you be willing to pay to give your child a Jewish education?

The JC explores what Labour’s policy of VAT on private schools would mean to parents and Jewish school leaders


The head of Naima JPS, Bill Pratt, says that VAT on school fees would impact many parents (Photo: Naima JPS)

Even before the election, Jewish organisations had begun to make overtures to Labour’s education team. As the likelihood grew of the party coming to power, so did concern that its long-advertised plans to levy VAT on fees at private schools and remove the 80 per cent relief on business rates could have a profound impact on the Jewish sector.

A senior leader at a Jewish independent said: “It will be a big hit. The school doesn’t rely on parents because they can’t afford to pay full fees. The burden falls on the fundraisers to make up the shortfall.”

Bill Pratt, head of Naima JPS in Maida Vale, west London, which charges fees of £16,350 a year, observed: “Some parents are going to be concerned, and some parents won’t be affected at all. But the vast majority have to make sacrifices to send their children to private school – it isn’t just for the very wealthy.”

Motty Pinter, a Stamford Hill-based activist with Chinuch UK, an umbrella group that represents Charedi schools, said that while the VAT policy would be a “major issue”, the loss of the business rates discount could be even more damaging.

“A decent-sized school may need to come up with another £200,000-plus annually to cover business rates should the exemption be removed. We are talking about an enormous amount of money,” he said.

The representative of one Charedi school told the Jewish schools network PaJeS last week that an additional £100,000 could force its closure.

Most Jewish schools in the UK are independent, with the majority serving the strictly Orthodox sector. While nominal fees at some of these may be £6,000 or more a year, many parents cannot afford to pay annything like this and some schools ask only for voluntary contributions. Pinter said the average charge was £75 a week for a Charedi school, compared to £480 for a London private school.

PaJeS’s assistant director of education, Raisel Freedman, said: “The biggest concern is the business rates, which look likely to be implemented quite quickly.”

For one mother of three, Maya (not her real name), who has sent all her children to Jewish private school, the likely rise in cost may force a rethink. Her children went from Nancy Reuben Primary in Hendon (where next year’s annual fees for Years 1 to 6 are around £4,700) to Immanuel College in Bushey, which is set to charge nearly £24,000 from September 2024.

Maya said: “There was a feeling at the time that it was the right place for our eldest, and once she was there, we didn’t consider anything else for our others. It wouldn’t be fair to offer her Immanuel and not our other children.”

But if the policy had come in when her eldest had started secondary, “we wouldn’t have considered the school”.

“We would have liked to keep our youngest in the school until sixth form,” she added, but any fee raise may be beyond the family’s limit. “When the bill comes, we look at it and close our eyes and grit our teeth. We can’t really afford it now, and we have the sibling discount of 10 per cent per child.”

The family has made significant sacrifices to educate their children privately. “We’re normal professional people. All of my income goes on school fees. It’s the middle-of-the-road professionals who work hard to send their kids to private school who will be affected.”

They have loved Immanuel. “There was something about it that we hadn’t found elsewhere. There is a smaller, familial, positive approach – we were drawn to the academic side of things, the art and performing arts – mixed with a strong Jewish offering and smaller class sizes.”

But she believes the policy has already prompted some parental flight. “There are far fewer starting in Year 7, and three or four children are leaving at the end of Year 8 this year, which is unusual,” she said.

PaJeS’s immediate concern has been to help schools “steady the ship right now because we don’t know what the policy looks like in practice”, Freedman said.

Its application may not be quite so straightforward. For example, some schools are housed in multi-purpose buildings such as synagogues (places of worship are exempt from paying business rates) or are used for charitable purposes. One school is already taking legal advice on this.

“It has come as a surprise to some of the frontbenchers that there would be severe unintended consequences to faith communities, particularly the Jewish community,” she said.

In order to mitigate the effects, PaJeS has proposed that fees equivalent to the cost to the government of educating a child in the state sector – around £8,000 annually – should be exempt from VAT.

In addition, Chinuch UK is calling for exemptions for children with special needs and for small schools of fewer than 200 pupils.

Pinter pointed out there were around 2,300 independent schools in the UK and Charedi schools were not “Eton-type” schools. “We are talking about a total of approximately 250 independent schools that would possibly be exempt from the VAT and removal of the business rates relief, so it is in the government’s best interest to try and resolve this by exempting these children,” he said.

He remains hopeful that some deal can be struck. “We have had numerous positive discussions with Labour,” he said. “They have been very understanding. They were sympathetic to the fact that there is diversity among independent schools and that our schools are not the high fee-paying schools this policy is focusing on.”

There are other practical implications too, he believes. According to the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, around 30 per cent of school-age children in Hackney are in Charedi independent schools.

If the new government’s policy were to shut them down, where would all those children go?

“We hope that equity and common sense will ultimately prevail,” he said, “ensuring that our schools and community are not disproportionately affected by these proposed changes.”

But Pratt warned that the policy could face legal challenges on the basis of discrimination. “The Labour Party has always been after independent schools; it is the politics of envy.”

While, he said that “the Etons, Harrows and Winchesters” would cope with the changes, “it is the smaller schools like ours, where the margins are much thinner, which will be impacted.”

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