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Private school VAT exemption for special needs children is ‘broken’, Labour admits

Keir Starmer
Keir Starmer has said he would move to impose VAT on private schools 'straight away' should his party win the election - Stefan Rousseau/PA

The shadow education secretary admitted the private school exemption plan that will protect children with special needs from Labour’s VAT raid is “broken” and “adversarial”.

Bridget Phillipson said in an interview last year that Education and Health Care Plans (EHCP) were failing families and applications were taking “a long time” to be approved.

EHCPs are certificates managed by local authorities that can be used to cover private school fees in cases where the child may need additional support because of special needs.

The documents are the only protection Labour has said private school pupils with special needs will have against potential fee rises if the party enters government.

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But The Telegraph reported last week that it can take anything from five weeks to two years to have the paperwork processed for a child and there are fears many will be unable to obtain the fee exemptions before Labour’s tax raid should it win the election on July 4.

In an interview with Mumsnet in October 2023 Ms Phillipson said of EHCP that “the system in many cases is just broken down and I hear a lot here as an MP in my constituency as well as the Shadow Secretary of State that it takes a long time”.

She added: “It is a broken system that the government has not prioritised fixing…The system as it currently stands is adversarial, there’s too much pressure there and it will require a reform overall”.

Sir Keir Starmer has previously said he would move to impose VAT and business rates on private schools “straight away” should his party win the election.

It led to fears parents would face higher fees as soon as September. However, Labour insiders have since insisted the tax raid would not come into force until the beginning of the next academic term in 2025 at the earliest.

Labour has so far refused to exempt around a dozen schools which exclusively teach children with special needs from paying VAT and business rates. The party has instead stressed that children in receipt of EHCPs will be exempt from any fee rises.

Headmasters have warned they will be forced to pass on the cost of VAT to parents without an EHCP in place before the tax raid comes into force.

John Stevenson, chairman of the governors at Frewen College, a special education school in East Sussex, said: “We have enormous concerns because about 60pc of our pupils are paid out of public funds but of the 40pc who pay our fees themselves they’re going to have to pay VAT.”

Mr Stevenson said that the school, which costs £28,000 a year for day school and £40,000 for boarding, would not be able to absorb the cost of VAT because its finances were stretched.

He said: “We run our finances as tightly as you possibly can, which indeed we have to to satisfy the local education authorities who fund rather more than half of our pupils. We are already cutting everything to the bone.”

Just 7,600 special needs pupils at private schools currently have an EHCP, while 103,000 do not, according to the Independent Schools Council (ISC), an industry body for private schools.

The ISC has warned that a rush of applications from parents seeking to avoid higher fees in the wake of Labour’s tax raid would overwhelm local authorities with thousands of requests.

An EHCP describes a child or young person’s special needs and sets out criteria to help meet these requirements in schools.

It can be used to obtain funding from local authorities for places at private schools which offer tailored support to children with special needs, that is not typically available at most state schools.

Local authorities are required to cover all of the costs associated with special educational needs.

In January of last year there were just over 517,000 EHC plans in circulation. In that year there were 114,482 requests for the plans made to local authorities and 66,706 new plans issued.

More than half of applications to councils for the plans that fund places take longer than 20 weeks to be processed, government data shows.

A Labour Party spokesman said: “The next Labour government will break down the barriers to opportunity by investing in all of our state schools and recruiting over 6,500 new teachers through ending the tax breaks for private schools.

“Places that are funded by Education Health and Care Plans for children with special educational needs will not have a higher cost as a result of VAT.”