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Here’s Why Everyone’s Having A Big Row About Free School Meals Today

Jeremy Corbyn has pledged to put a 20% tax on private school fees – and use the money to pay for all primary school children to receive free school meals. Here's what it actually means.

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Jeremy Corbyn has unveiled a major policy this morning: a proposal to put a 20% tax on private school fees and use the money raised to give free food to all children in state primary schools.

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The Labour leader's policy announcement is fairly simple: Parents who choose to pay for their children to go to private schools don't currently pay VAT on those school fees.

VAT is the 20% tax that is levied on most goods and services – from clothes to music downloads to the cost of hiring someone to fix your car. The money goes directly to the government, to spend as it sees fit.

Corbyn thinks it's unfair that private schools are currently exempt from this tax and reckons he could raise over £1 billion a year, which would be spent ensuring every single primary school child receives free school meals.

“No child in the UK should go hungry at school," he said. "By charging VAT on private schools fees, Labour will make sure all primary school children, no matter what their background, get a healthy meal at school."

Hang on, why don't private schools already charge VAT on fees?

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Almost all private schools in the UK are registered as charities, meaning they enjoy many of the same tax benefits as charities that serve other purposes, such as paying for research into cancer cures or running local community groups.

That's because traditionally education, regardless of the form it takes and who pays for it, has been seen as a benefit to society. Many private schools – including the most famous ones such as Eton – were originally founded to help educate poor, bright children in an age before universal education. As a result private schools don't have to pay VAT and also enjoy a substantial exemption from business rates, the tax levied on the owners of commercial buildings.

Currently around 7% of the UK's school children are educated privately, with that percentage rising slightly after the age of 16. In short, it's a minority interest. And with some fees at top boarding schools now approaching £40,000 a year per child, Labour insists it's unfair to give a tax break to very wealthy people who want an elite education for their offspring.

What's the private schools' defence?

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They seem a little bit flustered. One of the problems is that it's getting harder for the schools to make the case that they aren't just providing an elite service for the ultra-rich and wealthy individuals from overseas.

It's now difficult for even wealthy middle-class parents to afford to send their children to private schools. That's because fees have increased at a far faster rate than inflation for decades, especially after schools were stopped from running a price-fixing cartel. The average cost of sending a child to a private day school is now £16,119 a year, according to the Independent Schools Council. For boarding schools it's over £30,000 – well above the average pre-tax salary of most Britons.

Competition has driven up standards at the very top end of the market and some elite schools offer equestrian centres, international-standard sports facilities, and university-grade science centres. But many smaller private schools, especially outside the southeast of England, have struggled to attract customers and are closing or converting to state schools.

Private schools have traditionally justified their charitable status by offering scholarships and bursaries to a handful of children who would not otherwise be able to afford to attend, as well as opening up facilities such as swimming pools to the wider community.

But it's getting tougher to defend this stance. Mike Buchanan, the head of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference, which oversees the private school system, insisted the schools were not merely for the rich by telling Radio 4's Today programme that 1 in 5 households with privately educated children earned less than £50,000 a year. But that means that most are earning substantially more than that.

Will the Conservatives be furious at this proposal?

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Traditionally the Conservatives have stuck up for private schools, but the tide is changing. The idea of abolishing VAT status for schools was proposed in February by a dangerous left-wing radical called Michael Gove, when the former education secretary argued in The Times, that the tax break means the state and people on low wages effectively subsidise private education.

"That tax advantage allows the wealthiest in this country, indeed the very wealthiest in the globe, to buy a prestige service that secures their children a permanent positional edge in society at an effective 20 per cent discount," he wrote.

Gove doesn't get on very well with Theresa May, so has little direct influence on government education policy. But the prime minister has repeatedly emphasised that she wants to prioritise state grammar schools and free schools.

Will the policy actually provide free school meals for all primary school children, and do some people think it's not a good idea?

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It's been more than a decade since Jamie Oliver made the Turkey Twizzler famous and launched his campaign against unhealthy school food, warning that it was leading to a health crisis and making children harder to teach. Since then standards have improved, but there's a long way to go.

During the coalition government the Liberal Democrats secured funding for free school meals for all children during the first three years of primary school. Labour's policy would extend this for the remaining four years of primary education.

Some critics of Labour's policy suggest it is effectively a middle-class subsidy, since children from the very poorest families already receive free school meals and many of the beneficiaries of the policy can currently afford to pay for their children's food. The existing free school meals status is also used to identify pupils who may need extra help and assistance, meaning there would have to be a new way of identifying potentially struggling children.

For their part, private schools claim that if a 20% tax is put on school fees then many parents would be unable to afford the increased cost and would move their children to state school. They argue this would force the state to pick up the cost of educating those children, while the income to pay for free school meals would gradually decline.

But there's a fairly universal consensus on one thing: It's becoming politically difficult to justify the existing tax status of private schools, and ensuring as many schoolchildren as possible receive good food will boost standards.

Jim Waterson is a politics editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.

Contact Jim Waterson at jim.waterson@buzzfeed.com.

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