My parents are not wealthy. Neither lives a life of luxury; and neither ever has. And yet, through their own extraordinary dedication to my sister and me, they managed to put us both through private school – all the way for my sister, and up until grammar school sufficed in my case. It is precisely because I know that this is the story of thousands of parents, the length and breadth of the country, that I feel repulsed by Jeremy Corbyn’s latest policy prescription, of removing private schools’ VAT exemption.
Overnight, private school would become unaffordable for many thousands of families who currently, by hook or by crook, scrape together the money to make possibly the wisest investment in their children’s future. A family with two children in an independent secondary school is paying, on average, around £18000 a year – and so, even at the lower rate of 5%, such a family would face an extra burden of around £900. Doubtless, many of the selfless parents who scrimp and save wherever they can to keep their children in the private education system would find ways to make further cuts to their quality of life, enduring ever-greater sacrifice for the benefit of their children. Equally undeniable, however, is that many would scrape the bottom of the barrel to find nothing left; no further way of economising. The suffering facing such families would be unimaginable: children hoiked out of a stable educational environment, separated from friends, and resenting their parents for being unable to squeeze blood from a stone. The aspirational selflessness of these parents is something no society should punish.
And what would Corbyn’s latest back-of-a-fag-packet idea achieve? True, going on 2016 pupil numbers, and assuming VAT would be set at 5%, there would be a windfall for the Exchequer to the tune of a little over £300m – but even that’s premised on the fatuous assumption that hiking private education bills by 5% wouldn’t lead to a large number of children being hiked out by cash-strapped parents. Every child has to go to school, as well, and so the net result would be a greater burden on the state education system, which currently benefits hugely from the approximately 8% of children whose parents fork out for a better alternative. With spending per child in state school currently hovering at around £5000, it would take fewer than 4% of children in private education being pushed back into the state sector before the prospective windfall would be eaten up entirely.
This isn’t even to mention the absurd justification offered for this heinous levy on aspiration. Firstly, we are told, private schools should not receive this subsidy; they should live and die by the same rules governing other businesses. Except most aren’t businesses: the vast majority of independent schools in the UK are charities, instituted not to deliver profit to greedy shareholders, but instead to offer the most important public good there is. Secondly, Corbyn’s plans for spending any money raised are even more foolish than his plans for raising it in the first place. For students from low-income families, school meals are already free on a means-tested basis, and so making them free to all would be nothing other than a boon to the many parents who can comfortably afford to pay for their children’s meals.
But let’s be honest about this, because there’s something more sinister at play here than primary-school logic. This is a political assault on the aspirational values that have, generation by generation, hauled thousands of families up the ladder. It is, to quote the Foreign Secretary, “punishment beatings” for any parents who dare question the virtues of the comprehensive experiment. Of course, it would never punish the truly rich parents, who sign on the dotted line each term without even glancing at the amount on the invoice. But it would foment resentment against them, amongst the many thousands of parents walking around a little hungry, or with the odd hole in their socks, who would see their many years of self-sacrifice lost to a war on private ownership of anything from trains to toothpaste.
As conservatives, we don’t get everything right – and even we have moments where ideology trumps pragmatism. On this occasion, however, we must recognise the virtue of our position, and not concede an inch. A child’s education is the greatest gift he or she can ever receive. To confiscate the superb education bestowed by independent schools from the children whose parents battle every day to afford it would not be merely a nonsensical and self-defeating fundraising exercise: it would be an act of class war, waged by a despicable assault on the very best and self-sacrificing parents amongst our number.