The Labour manifesto has pledged to close “tax loopholes enjoyed” by private schools but has ducked committing the party to integrating the independent sector.
The party has instead said it will ask the Social Justice Commission – an independent body Labour has pledged to establish if it wins the election – to advise ministers on integrating private schools into the state sector.
At the party conference this autumn, party delegates backed a motion that would commit the party to abolishing private schools.
Speaking to Emma Barnett on Newsnight, Labour frontbencher Barry Gardiner denied that the party had “farmed [nationalisation] out to consultation”.
Gardiner said: “I don’t consider it bottling it, I consider what we’re doing is a very sensible way forward.”
Labour’s pledge means independent schools may lose business rate exemption and would pay VAT for the first time.
Julie Robinson, chief executive of the Independent Schools Council (ISC), said the party was “prioritising ideology over improving education”.
“Abolishing independent schools through integration/nationalisation would be an attack on the rights and freedoms of parents to make choices over the education of their children, while punitive financial measures will harm families as well as school staff and communities, heap more pressure on the state sector, swell class sizes and result in higher costs.
“We all want to see a well-funded state school system. We share an ambition to improve the lives of all children – but imposing VAT on school fees will make this harder, not easier.”
ISC said research shows a VAT on fees policy would cost the Government at least £416m in its fifth year once pupil displacement and VAT recovery is taken into account. It said any change to tax would disproportionately affect smaller independent schools and lead to closures.
The Baines Cutler report estimates that 20% of independent students – representing around 135,000 children – would be forced into the state sector by the policy. Labour has estimated that far fewer children would make the move.
There are an estimated 625,000 pupils in private schools and 8.1 million in state schools.
European law currently exempts education from VAT because of the value of learning to society
“European law currently exempts education from VAT because of the value of learning to society and independent schools are not treated as a special case in this respect. Imposing VAT on school fees would penalise parents who are choosing to do the best for their children. It would be a tax on learning,” Robinson added.
Despite its controversial announcements, a Tes poll of 12,000 independent school teachers has revealed that Labour comes top when asked which party has the best education policies; nearly a third of teachers in the sector said they supported its VAT and integration promises.
One in four teachers polled said they did not know which party to vote for, one in five said they would vote Conservative and a third said they would chose the Liberal Democrats.
Read more: Labour aims axe at independent sector
Mike Buchanan, executive director of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC), said the sector “already contribute significantly” in taxes. He added that any future government should “think very carefully about attacking one of the UK’s great national assets and exports”.
“Any further tax is putting politics before pupils and will have serious unforeseen consequences. It will hurt hard-working parents, drive up class sizes and pile further pressure on state school budgets. We are particularly worried about the effects on vulnerable children.
“State-funded schools already struggling with existing demand would be forced to absorb more than a hundred thousand children from independent schools whose parents could no longer afford to pay for their child’s education. This is may include many of the 85,000 pupils at independent schools with special needs whose parents already struggle to pay for specialised care and support.”
A ComRes poll of over 2,000 adults conducted this September for HMC and ISC found that two-thirds of the public support the independent sector, including 56% of Labour voters.