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Chris McGovern: Putting VAT on school fees will only benefit the well off

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Some good news, at last, for moderately well off, well off and very well off parents who send their children to state schools. If Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party ever gets elected,  they may be in for a cash handout. “Yippee, and three cheers for Jeremy!” might be the cry of some middle class mums and dads in Islington as they plan their next family holiday in Tuscany. More Vino Montalcino and melted mozzarella all round! “Cin-Cin”, as they say in San Gim!

Yes, believe it or not, the Labour Party is proposing to go beyond Nick Clegg’s gift to the middle classes of free lunches for all Key Stage 1 pupils (5 to 7 year-olds). Its leader has announced that he would like to extend the provision to cover Key Stage 2 youngsters (7 to 11 year-olds) as well.

In the past, only those children whose parents could not afford to feed them, were entitled to a free school lunches. Indeed, entitlement to a free school meal (FSM) is still a widely used, if imperfect, measure of relative poverty.

It was Napoleon who noted that an army marches on its stomach. Much the same could be said of school children. Well-fed pupils learn better than hungry pupils. A few years ago, as chairman of an academy trust that took over a failing school in a deprived area, the first thing I did was to ensure that that the children were fed. Through our charity we provided breakfast for many children whose parents were dependent on emergency ‘food banks’. The State, legitimately in my view, covered the cost of lunchtime meals for these pupils.

In a civilised society, the feeding of hungry children is not an optional extra for government but should the State, also, be feeding the children whose parents are perfectly able to cover the cost of a meal? What on earth is the justification for subsidising the better off? Why is Labour so keen to feed the children of richer parents whilst complaining about cash-strapped schools? The Left’s moral high ground is built, however erroneously, on what it calls ‘social justice’ – helping the disadvantaged at the expense of the advantaged. A free meals hand out for middle class kids does not quite fit the bill. What on earth is going on?

It does not take much digging below the surface to find Jeremy Corbyn’s motivation. It appears to be the ex-prep schoolboy’s deep dislike of, and antagonism towards, private education. This latest announcement amounts to a declaration of educational warfare on private schools. It is also intended, presumably, to win over that mass of middle class voters whose children attend state schools. The cost of providing free schools meals for all state primary school pupils will be met by charging VAT on private school fees. The £900,000 raised will cover the cost, or so he argues. He is, however, mistaken.

Charging 20 per cent VAT on fees will force many private schools to close or to down size. How many? Impossible to say, of course, but I would not be surprised if a third went to the wall. The consequence would be a significant increase in the demand for state school places from private school refugees. This would, in turn, reduce the money available per head in state schools whilst lowering the amount gathered from private schools in VAT. It would also make private schools even more exclusive. In addition, that third of private school pupils, from poorer homes, who depend on bursaries, would have to fall by the wayside.

Private schools are the jewel in the much-tarnished crown of our school system. Mr Corbyn’s attack on them displays both incompetence and ignorance. It might be argued that the Labour leader, or a like-minded successor, has little, if any, prospect of ever being elected to power. He would not, however, be first the first leadership candidate in history to have defied those odds.

(Image: Wilson Hui)

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Chris McGovern
Chris McGovernhttp://www.cre.org.uk
Chris McGovern is the Chairman of the Campaign for Real Education. A retired head teacher with 35 years’ teaching experience, Chris is a former advisor to the Policy Unit at 10 Downing Street under two Prime Ministers.

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