Tory leaders have a habit of declaring social justice as their key aim when they come to power. Remember Margaret Thatcher quoting St Francis of Assisi ‘where there is discord, may we bring harmony’ on the steps of Number 10?
Or John Major speaking of his vision of ‘the classless society’?
In her first speech as PM, Theresa May followed suit:
“If you’re at a state school, you’re less likely to reach the top professions than if you’re educated privately….but the mission to make Britain a country that works for everyone means more than fighting these injustices…The Government I lead will be driven, not by the interests of the privileged few, but by yours…When it comes to taxes, we’ll prioritise not the wealthy, but you.”
But what does this rhetoric actually mean in specific and practical terms?
Are private schools charities?
Yesterday, May’s former colleague, Michael Gove, wrote an article in The Times with one specific suggestion: ending the tax exemptions available to the 1200 private schools in the UK due to their charitable status.
I don’t aim just to start an argument about the pros and cons of private education. Rather, I want to focus very specifically on this question: is it right that some of the most elitist establishments in the country are able to present themselves as charities?
In his article, Michael Gove lists some of the facilities that top private schools enjoy: Millfield has an equestrian centre and clay pigeon shooting facilities, Stowe its own night club and Charterhouse its own stables and golf course.
Every week I go to Whitgift School (pictured above) because my cricket club hires their sports hall. The quality of the facilities are breathtaking.
Many of the top schools have fees of over £30,000 a year, per pupil. This alone is well above the national average income.
Yet each one of them is a registered charity. As such, they get an 80% discount on their business rates and their school fees are VAT exempt. As Gove puts it:
‘To my continuing surprise, we still consider the education of children of plutocrats and oligarchs to be a charitable activity. This allows the very wealthiest in the globe to buy a prestige service that secures their children a permanent positional edge in society at an effective 20% discount’
He also refers to other state-paid benefits enjoyed by private schools, such as the subsidised uniforms of their cadet forces. But I think this is just so he can fit in this one-liner: ‘The Eton rifles are welfare junkies.’
Of course, supporters of the status quo will point to the bursary schemes that enable kids from families with lower incomes to attend. And, fair enough, many of these schools do provide for a limited number of people who are not in the tiny % who can afford the full fees.
Also, some will point to private schools allowing state schools to use their facilities. But according to the Independent Schools Council’s own figures only 3% of private schools sponsor an academy and only 5% loan teaching staff to state schools.
These efforts hardly scratch the surface of creating any authentic diversity. And it is on this tiny thread of noblesse oblige that the legitimacy of their charitable status hangs.
For me it is clear that the richest schools in the country are not legitimate charities and should not be given tax breaks. As Gove says:
‘Are the children of the rich intrinsically more talented and worthy, more gifted and more deserving of celebration than the rest? Of course not. But our state-subsidised private schools continue to give them every advantage.’
If Theresa May truly believes in what she has said then she should end this state-subsidy of elitism.
People on both the political left and right believe that the rampant inequality between rich and poor in this country needs to be addressed. And education is one of the best places to start.
2 thoughts on “Elitism dressed as charity: the injustice of tax breaks for private schools”
The charity status of private schools has long been contentious and does seem absurd. I agree with your sentiments but the issues are more complex than you suggest. Firstly, the fees are VAT exempt, not because they are charitable, but because they are VAT exempt educational services. The main tax advantage is exemption from corporation tax. In total, the tax advantage to independent schools amounts to £150m p.a. whereas they contribute £350m in free or subsidised services for children from disadvantaged backgrounds.
I am no supporter of private education but I fear that some influencers have spotted the potential value of charity tax exemption in general to boost government coffers, and are keen to chip away at it, starting with private schools. Make no mistake, if we are not careful, this seemingly popular move could well be the beginning of the end for charities.
Thanks for the comment and the further clarification Grace.