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  1. Private Schools
July 3, 2024

Concerned international parents question long-term future of UK independent schools

There has been a 300 per cent spike in the number of parents querying the long-term viability of the UK independent school sector, according to industry advisers

By Stephanie Bridger-Linning

Parents of international pupils enrolled in British independent schools are questioning the long-term viability of the education system, according to leading experts. 

[See also: The 25 best UK senior schools in 2024]

Advisers at Quintessentially Education, which work directly with families and students to provide independent advice on schools and universities, has seen a 300 per cent increase in the number of enquiries from concerned parents ahead of the general election. 

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The concerns are triggered by Sir Keir Starmer’s pledge to levy VAT on private school fees, potentially adding as much as 20 per cent to annual costs for parents.

[See also: Private school VAT levy would impact three-quarters of wealthy families]

The topic has sparked widespread debate on both sides of the political spectrum, with supporters arguing it is a vital way to raise money for frontline projects, and disgruntled opponents claiming it will threaten the future of schools and could lead to a run on an already oversubscribed state school sector. 

Labour claims the move will raise money for the public purse, citing figures from the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) which estimates that the scheme would generate about £1.6 billion a year. However, the sums only work if there isn’t a mass withdrawal from the private school system.

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In June 2023, research by educational think-tank EDSK found that if a quarter of pupils switched from private schools, the government might raise only a net £19 million. Private school enrolments have already dropped and Quintessentially Education warns there could be a significant withdrawal from the independent school system.

Shockwaves around the world

‘I am getting a lot of parents phoning me and asking if the school they are considering is going to be viable,’ says David Smith, a senior consultant at the London-based firm. ‘They are very aware of the threat of VAT and want to know what the long-term position is for their child’s future school. 

[See also: Introducing the Spear’s Schools Index 2024]

‘There is an increased awareness that many schools will not cope financially and may go under. Understandably, no parent wants to send their child to a school that might be in this position. It is a question we are being asked a lot currently.’

Speaking to Martin Vander Weyer for a feature published in the latest issue of Spear’s, Sir Anthony Seldon, a doyen of the sector as head of Epsom College and former head of Wellington and Brighton College, explained that a number of schools are at risk. 

[See also: Privately furious: Top independent schools braced for Labour’s VAT grab on fees]

‘It would be quite wrong to think all independent schools can cope with VAT the way the likes of Eton and Harrow might be able to do so,’ he explained. ‘This will damage schools outside the South East, prep schools, niche schools and many other schools which don’t operate on significant margins.’ 

Amelia Buckworth, education manager at the Quintessentially Group, looked to the long-term damage the policy could do to ‘brand UK’, which has long counted the independent education sector among its greatest strengths. 

She adds: ‘It’s been like an explosion. No-one has questioned the viability of our independent schools before in this way; there is a lot of uncertainty and concern. 

‘If this plan goes ahead, it will cause a lot of disruption in the UK independent schools’ sector which makes it more important than ever for prospective parents in the UK and abroad to get the very best information and advice when considering an independent education for their child.’

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