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“Our roof came off… Spend VAT on fixing state school buildings like mine?”

Carl Smith

They say you should always fix the roof while the sun shines, but what if the roof blows off altogether? 

That’s what happened in my school last June, excitingly just before an Ofsted inspection. More precisely, I was briefing the staff on the forthcoming inspection during a storm.

What followed was our premises staff running in to announce that some of the roof to the main building had blown off and we were, quite literally, exposed to the elements. 

Divine intervention it may have been but there was nothing divine about the danger it presented. Classrooms and our library were flooding before our very eyes.

A heroic premises officer climbed the roof, secured some tarpaulin, and called the emergency services. The entire school was closed for two days, and the building spent the summer shrouded in scaffolding.  

In the end the inspectors decided not to inspect a flooded school. That was one deep dive they didn’t fancy. 

Then last week we had a water leak of a different kind, which is not surprising, since the pipes were laid in the 1930s. That leak cost £15,000 to repair which was 75 per cent of the total capital budget for that year. Yes that’s right, three-quarters of the budget.

Then there are the broken boilers which would cost 200 per cent of our capital budget to fix. Fortunately, the site manager knows how to fit electric wall heaters. 

They cost a fortune to run, and they are not what you would call eco-friendly but at least the pupils can hold their pens without shivering, which improves their handwriting no end. 

Fortunately, we don’t have RAAC (reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete, in case you missed it). Our school is too old for that. 

However, since 2020 capital funding to state schools has fallen by 46 per cent. So it isn’t just the roofs that are falling down but the walls and the ceilings too. Some state school buildings are just plain derelict.  

Misplaced outcry

But what about our neighbours? 

Not far away, our nearest private school has submitted plans to upgrade their sports facilities. I understand this will include extra astro-turf pitches, a new pavilion, a dance and Pilates studio and a gym. I am assuming that gym won’t have inefficient wall heaters.  

From my perspective, the ‘outcry’ about applying VAT to private school fees is misplaced. Paying VAT to buy private education is not only fair in a legal sense (a tax on a luxury expense), but it is in a societal sense too. 

Labour’s tax on private school fees will raise a desperately needed £1.3 billion to £1.5 billion a year according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies. That’s for schools like mine, where the roof, quite literally, blew off. 

It is money that state schools, and the incredibly hardworking staff inside them, desperately need.

Invest in schools for the future

But the money must be used wisely. 

Labour wants to use the raised money to help disadvantaged pupils, which is great. But the biggest impact of all could benefit all pupils for generations to come. 

We need to remember that in the state system all pupils learn together, disadvantaged and less-disadvantaged, using the same classrooms and the same teachers. A new roof shelters all children and a new boiler keeps them all warm. 

Meanwhile, we need a 10-year programme of capital investment in our school estate. It would be a long-term investment for all pupils, which is why is it often overlooked in a world where quick political returns are required. 

Yet what better way to genuinely address the disparity between state schools and their private counterparts, than to upgrade the buildings and facilities they learn in? 

I would like Labour to make a bold pledge to spend the tax on private fees on rebuilding and repairing our schools. Michael Gove scrapped New Labour’s ‘Building Schools for the Future’ programme in 2010, in a ‘crass, insensitive’ way he said he later came to regret. 

Gove had said that money should be going on ‘frontline services’ not ‘making architects richer’. But this completely missed the point.

By not upgrading and improving the state school building estate, headteachers like me are having to spend money that could be going on making teaching even better, rather on sorting out the plumbing and heating. It’s ridiculous, and not worthy of such a rich nation as ours. 

So, if Labour made this pledge now, this rebuilding programme would be a lasting legacy that couldn’t be swept away by future administrations with different priorities. It would be a visible statement of intent with a tangible benefit to all. 

Unsurprisingly, 62 per cent of the public support the idea of a tax on private fees. Some of that huge number also includes parents who currently send their children to private schools (even though you would never know it from the media coverage)!

Amongst parents of state school children, the support is 75 per cent. 

But that doesn’t stop vested interests claiming it would be a “tax on aspiration” or that scholarships would be hit hardest. 

What about all the kids in the state sector? The vast majority of kids?

The engines of privilege have a proud tradition of defending their own interests, but this time Labour should have the courage of their convictions and ignore these special pleas, disingenuous as they are.  

A legacy for all children

Labour’s new tax will be a new dawn for state education, but it cannot do everything. 

I think it should be used in the most tangible way possible, to build a new education system where basic facilities are taken for granted. Yes, taken for granted. Not begged for, not fretted about. 

It would also create jobs, make our schools greener and make them cheaper to run, allowing headteachers like me to spend a little more of the money we do have on teachers and books, rather than pipes and boilers. 

Let’s unlock the wealth in private schools and use it to give our state schools great facilities of their own. 

This would be an investment that could never be clawed back, wiped away or simply cancelled.

Building state schools for all children of the 21st century would be a vision the (initially) charitable founders of Eton would actually have been proud of. 

Carl Smith is the principal of Casterton College Rutland, an 11-16 academy in Lincolnshire. He was educated at Warwick University, has a PGCE in history and politics from the UCL Institute of Education, and a masters degree in history. He gained his national professional qualification for headteachers in 2000.  Smith was the first advanced skills teacher of history in the UK and has authored several books on education.


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