Dismantling private education would cause massive disruption and push up costs for state schools by billions of pounds, a union leader has warned.
While Labour is right to look at how to create a fairer society, scrapping private schools could create problems, according to Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL).
A Labour source told the PA news agency the party is looking at ways of “removing the unfair privileges currently given to private schools”.
There have been growing indications of Labour’s plans for private education, with a leaked document suggesting the party is planning to scrap discounted business rates for private schools and charge VAT on fees if it were to come to power.
The issue of private education is widely expected to be debated at the party’s annual conference in Brighton this weekend.
But Mr Barton sounded a note of caution, arguing that the key to creating “a more equitable society” is through ensuring all children have a good education and improving career opportunities.
He told PA: “There appears to be a head of steam building up in the Labour Party to abolish private schools.
“But dismantling private schools would shift billions of pounds of costs on to the state education system, and would cause massive disruption to students and staff in the private sector if schools closed abruptly.
“Labour is right to look at how we create a more equitable society but the key to doing that is to make sure every child has a great education and to find ways of improving career opportunities.
“Abolishing private schools would not address these issues but it would create lots of problems.”
ASCL represents over 19,000 primary, secondary and post-16 education UK school leaders.
In an article for the Times Educational Supplement (TES) Mr Barton, a former English teacher and comprehensive school headteacher, said that dismantling private education is “ethically dubious and logistically problematic”.
“Labour needs to be very careful what it’s wishing for” he said.
Mr Barton argued: “Closing independent schools, whether as the result of taxation changes to make some of them unsustainable or directly through abolition, has consequences – for children, for parents, and for the state sector that the proposal is supposedly designed to benefit.”
Many independent schools are small, and if they were to become financially unsustainable and forced close due to suggested reforms, pupils may have to be found places in state schools.
“The state would now have to fund the education of these pupils,” Mr Barton said.
“This would put more pressure on Government finances. If all the private schools closed, state spending would have to be increased by billions of pounds every year.
“Next, if the closure of private schools happened in a chaotic manner, it would be disruptive to the young people who were displaced, and to the staff who found themselves without jobs.
“This is why it is ethically dubious. The pupils who go to private schools may often be from well-off backgrounds – though we should beware lazy caricatures – but they are still children, and the government has a duty of care to all its citizens.”
Shadow chancellor John McDonnell said just last week that the Labour Party wants a “fully comprehensive education system” and that private schools should be treated “like any other business”.
It has also been reported that Mr McDonnell is backing a campaign calling for England’s private schools to have their charitable status removed, their assets to be used by state education and limits placed on pupils’ entry to university.
A Labour source told PA: “Workers and businesses have to pay their taxes – why should these elitist institutions be any different? It’s one rule for them and another rule for the rest of us.
“Labour will tax private schools to pay for free school meals for every primary school child, and we are continuing to look at ways we can go further to remove the unfair privileges currently given to private schools.”