10 June 2024

Starmer rejects Thornberry suggestion private school fees VAT may swell classes

10 June 2024

Sir Keir Starmer said it was wrong for shadow attorney general Emily Thornberry to suggest that Labour’s plan to add VAT to private school fees would lead to larger class sizes in the state sector.

Ms Thornberry said on Sunday that “it would be fine if we have to, in the short term, have larger classes”, amid concerns the policy could force pupils to leave private schools.

An internal row over the claim escalated as shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson also said it “just wasn’t right”.

Asked if Ms Thornberry’s suggestion was wrong, the Labour leader said during a campaign visit on Monday: “Yes.”

“We’ve had the analysis by the IFS (Institute for Fiscal Studies) on this, which says that there’ll be a negligible impact. So we’re very confident about that.”

The IFS think tank has said the policy will generate roughly £1.5 billion a year, which Labour plans to invest in state education, including on recruiting more teachers.

“Bridget has got it right and Emily didn’t get it quite right,” Sir Keir also told LBC Radio. “Bridget is obviously the shadow secretary of state on education, and Emily just got the lines a bit wrong there.”

He said it was a “tough choice” because “I do understand many parents saving and working hard to send their children to private school”, but “we have to fund our nurseries, we have to fund the teachers we need in our state secondary schools”.

Sir Keir said VAT on private school fees would be enough to fund Labour’s childcare policy, as well as hiring 6,500 new teachers, as he was questioned about the move at the Nursery Hill Primary School in Nuneaton, Warwickshire.

“Yes, it is,” he told broadcasters.

“This is a really important policy because, as any parent with young children will tell you, childcare and nursery places are really essential.”

He added: “Our scheme is fully funded, fully costed, but also fully planned, so it would be wrapped around primary schools, and just talking to some of the parents here who’ve got other children in the school, it will be a real game-changer for them. So this has been very positively received.”

Ms Phillipson earlier said Ms Thornberry’s comment about larger class sizes “just wasn’t right”.

She told Times Radio: “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 a possible pupil exodus from the private sector, because of the 20% rise in fees 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.”

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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