The threat of VAT to smaller, rural independent schools in Wales

Posted on: 25 Jun 2024
Posted by: Martin Allen

Martin Allen, bursar at Christ College, Brecon, discusses the challenges facing his school amid Labour’s plans to impose VAT on school fees, and explains how staff are preparing for the tax should the party come to power.

Founded by royal charter on the site of a 13th-century Grey Friars abbey, Christ College Brecon is a co-educational independent school established in 1541 by Henry VIII. Some remains of the abbey still stand today, although much of the site dates to Victorian times. The school’s location in the heart of the Brecon Beacons National Park (known locally as Bannau Brycheiniog), provides a spectacular backdrop for young people to grow and to thrive.

A governor once said that placing a fee-paying school right in the middle of Wales was the worst business plan in history; the school has survived a civil war, two world wars, numerous economic crises and has been saved from closure on no fewer than three occasions, the last being 1853. Despite these challenges, the school has thrived and prospered under several inspiring heads.

The school became co-educational 40 years ago and, alongside its proud Welsh identity, many boys’ school traditions continue to live on. We excel at sport, particularly rugby. Since crossing “over the border” ten years ago, the first thing I discovered about being Welsh is when it comes to singing, you don’t hold back. Hearing the chapel in full voice first thing in the morning is enough to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. I’m sure anyone who’s been to watch a Wales game at the Principality Stadium will know what I mean.

With around 400 pupils in total, we’re not up there with the major independent schools – but in terms of what we offer, I have always felt that Christ College is a small school that never fails to exceed expectations.

Our rugby team can go toe-to-toe with pretty much any team in the country. Academically, we offer a wide range of subjects, including languages and music. In recent years, we have made much more use of our location, so adventure and outdoor expeditions now feature as an integral part of the curriculum. We offer an incredible range of co-curricular activities designed to enhance the “soft knowledge” required to prepare our pupils for life.

We don’t have lots of money to throw around but what we offer staff is incredibly valuable. Teachers come here and stay because working in a boarding school is a lifestyle choice, not just a job.

What about our pupils and parents? About 20 per cent of our pupils come from overseas but well over half are local day pupils. The majority are local and Welsh. More than half of our pupils are locally recruited and are prepared to travel for up to an hour to attend school every day. Parents make considerable sacrifices to pay for their child’s education and it is very rare that it can be supported on one income. Often, grandparents make advance payments on their grandchildren’s inheritance to pay the fees.

Some politicians claim that the parents and private schools of Middle England can easily afford a 20 per cent tax on fees together with a simultaneous abolition of mandatory business rates relief. But this isn’t Middle England, it’s Mid-Wales.

So, what are our options? Well, “simply” passing the entire cost onto the parents is not an option. We know that if this school were not charging for our services, we’d be overwhelmed with applications. The parents of existing pupils will do whatever it takes to ensure they pay the bills. Our concern is that the dual impact of a 20 per cent increase in fees, together with the loss of business rates relief, would be an unavoidable significant reduction on the subsidies we offer. It means that we would be unable to offer affordable places to local and UK parents on mid-level or modest incomes. The whole character of our school, we fear, would become less bespoke, less community engaged, less about educating local, British citizens as we shift our attention to seeking out high-net-worth-customers.

We’re confident we can meet the challenge. It means having to grow our endowment fund to fully fund bursaries, expand our international boarding market and pick up displaced boarders priced out of the market “over the border”. We plan to take advantage of the incredible assets of our location and run international summer camps. The net result is that VAT on school fees would force us to chase the money at the expense of providing a much-valued education service for ordinary, local people in and around South Wales.

About Martin Allen

Martin Allen is the bursar at Christ College, Brecon