10 June 2024

Labour’s Phillipson says Thornberry’s growing class sizes comment ‘wasn’t right’

10 June 2024

The shadow education secretary has said it “wasn’t right” for a fellow frontbencher to suggest that Labour’s plan to add VAT to private school fees would lead to larger class sizes in the state sector.

Shadow attorney general Emily Thornberry suggested on Sunday that “it would be fine if we have to, in the short term, have larger classes” amid concerns the move could force pupils to leave private schools.

But on Monday Bridget Phillipson rejected the comments, in a sign of divisions within Sir Keir Starmer’s party over the policy.

She told Times Radio: “I am afraid that just wasn’t right.

Actually what we are seeing across the state sector is a falling number of pupils in our classrooms

“Actually what we are seeing across the state sector is a falling number of pupils in our classrooms because of the falling birth rate, and there are fewer young people arriving at school.

“So, actually, we are going to be in the position pretty soon – and it is already the case in places like London – where schools are merging and closing because of falling numbers.”

Asked if she would be having a word with Ms Thornberry about her remarks, Ms Phillipson said: “Happy to do so, because that isn’t the position that we see at the moment.”

Shadow education minister Catherine McKinnell also rejected fears over a pupil exodus from the private sector because of the 20% rise in prices as a result of Labour’s proposed introduction of VAT.

Asked about Ms Thornberry’s comments, she told LBC radio: “No, I don’t agree with that, and I think it is really important that we bust some of these myths, actually, on some of the fears that have been generated around the change in tax status of private schools.

“Because there is very clear evidence that shows that the fees of private schools have been raised year on year above inflation and there has been no shift in the number of children attending private schools.”

The Institute for Fiscal Studies think tank has said Labour’s policy would generate roughly £1.5 billion a year, which the party plans to invest in state education, including in recruiting more teachers.

Asked about the risk of overcrowding in state schools, Ms Thornberry told GB News on Sunday: “Certainly, some schools that have vacancies… my primary schools and my secondary schools have space and they’re very welcome.

“They are good schools and people should send their children there. I mean, it’s fine, and if we have to, in the short term, have larger classes, we have larger classes.”

The Conservatives seized on her comments, with Education Secretary Gillian Keegan saying: “Today Labour admitted their tax raid will lead to ‘larger classes’ in state schools, punishing children to pay for their plans.

“It’s not just hard-working parents who will pay the price for Labour with £2,094 of extra taxes, it’s also our children who will be impacted by Labour’s politics of envy.”

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