Starmer forced to deny shadow Cabinet minister claim that VAT on private schools may push up state class sizes

Sir Keir Starmer was forced to deny a claim by one of his own shadow Cabinet ministers that class sizes in state schools may increase as a result of Labour plans to charge VAT on private schools.

Shadow attorney general Emily Thornberry suggested on Sunday that “it would be fine if we have to, in the short term, have larger classes”.

On a visit to Nuneaton, in the West Midlands, the Labour leader was asked about whether she was wrong, responding: “Yes.

“We have had the analysis by the IFS (Institute for Fiscal Studies) on this which says that there will be a negligible impact.”

Shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson also said Ms Thornberry had got the policy’s impact wrong.

Asked about Ms Thornberry’s remarks, Ms Phillipson told Times Radio: “I am afraid that just wasn’t right. 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.”

She was later grilled on Sky News about the confusion and again insisted Ms Thornberry, who is standing again to be MP for Islington South and Finsbury, had been mistaken.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) has said the policy of charging private schools 20 per cent VAT will generate roughly £1.5bn a year, which Labour plans to invest in state education, including in recruiting more teachers.

Ms Thornberry was asked about the potentially thousands of students who are expected to leave private schools because of hikes in fees of up to 20 per cent.

She told GB News: “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.”

She continued: “All we need to do is we need to raise the money in order to make sure that children who go into state schools have had breakfast.”

She added: “It’s not much to ask and if it means putting VAT on private schools – the question is, is it appropriate in these circumstances for schools, such as in Eton or Winchester or whatever, to be seen as a charity and that, therefore, they should not be paying VAT on the huge fees that are already charged?”

However, Education Secretary Gillian Keegan said pupils would be impacted by “Labour’s politics of envy”.

She said: “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.

“The choice is clear: stick with the clear plan that is working, taking bold action to drive up school standards with Rishi Sunak. Or go back to square one with Keir Starmer and larger school class sizes, damaging children’s futures.”