What does Labour’s VAT policy mean for military families?

Posted on: 15 May 2024

Harriet Langdale, director of admissions, marketing and communications at Ampleforth College, looks at what Labour’s VAT plans mean for those military families who are supported by the Continuity of Education Allowance (CEA).

Reports from independent schools around the country suggest that parents are tightening their belts and drawing in the purse strings in anticipation of an incoming Labour government’s imposition of VAT on school fees. Planned school trips are being cancelled as not enough pupils are signing up. Holiday destinations nearer to home are looking more attractive, and the holiday itself will be shorter. Mortgage arrangements are being reviewed and fee pre-payment schemes are being scrutinised. Grandparents are looking at options for early equity release. Families with children at fee-paying schools are getting jittery. 

Independent schools are also feeling it. Most have had to raise fees more than perhaps they would have liked for the second year in a row to cope with the rampant inflation over this time. This means that an additional hike via the imposition of VAT on fees, should Labour come to power, would be even more painful for their families – and simply unaffordable in many cases.  

The argument that Labour’s VAT policy will serve to make independent education the preserve of the super-rich, pricing out the dual-income families who long ago gave up overseas holidays and save everything they have to pay school fees, has been well covered. As has the possible closure of many of those independent schools chosen by such families - small, local catchment day schools to which their only alternative is usually the state sector. 

But what about families whose jobs are mobile, perhaps moving from country to country every few years, who choose boarding schools so their children can have educational stability and continue studying in the British system? For those who work in the public sector - specifically the Armed Forces and the diplomatic service - their salary is not sufficient to pay independent boarding school fees, so the government provides financial support in the form of the Continuity of Education Allowance (CEA) to help while they are deployed abroad or around the UK. The CEA is open to all service personnel who need to relocate on a regular basis and over 4,700 families benefit from it. What does Labour’s VAT policy mean for them?

Over recent years the CEA has not risen in line with school fees. With significant fee increases to cover inflation since the end of the pandemic, there is evidence that service personnel are already feeling the pinch. More army families in particular are now leaving one parent behind in the UK so the children can go to local day schools instead. 

At the same time full boarding has become increasingly rare, and many boarding schools now empty out at weekends leaving only those who live overseas behind. Schools that rely on CEA families to boost their boarding numbers, particularly at the weekends, now offer the maximum discount allowed to CEA families to continue to attract them. This means many CEA families now only pay the minimum requirement of 10% of the fees. But as fees have had to rise exponentially recently, if VAT is imposed, this will price many more out of boarding and force families instead to be separated. At a time when the army is finding it hard to recruit, this policy will only make it harder to attract, properly train, and retain staff. 


A parent’s perspective: ‘My child’s boarding school has allowed me to continue to serve’

An Army Officer with a child attending Ampleforth College highlights the invaluable support provided by the Continuity of Education Allowance (CEA), which fosters stability and continuity for military families. 

I’m lucky, because like most service personnel I really enjoy my job. I’ve stayed in – and continued to serve in – the British Army as a volunteer and I could leave at any time; my lifestyle choices are all my own. However, I do think it’s fair to say that when one joins the forces as a youngster it’s hard to fully understand the complete commitment that service involves. Marriage and providing education for children are significant concerns in any life, but service life places a unique type of pressure on both.

Since my eldest child was born, I have been posted to 15 jobs and have completed 12 house moves. For my middle child it’s 14 jobs and 11 house moves, and for my youngest it’s 12 jobs and 11 moves; the longest we’ve been in one place is just over two and a half years. Often, I have been away from home for extended periods on operations or exercise, including almost entirely for one 24-month period and several 12-month periods. On two occasions I’ve moved after only 7-8 months.

Military postings do tend to happen in the summer, but they don't take into account the stage of education that a child is in.  I calculate that if my children had moved with my postings, since the age of 10 they would have attended at least five different schools (it would have been seven for my eldest child). Many of the moves are forced by Local Education Authority rules, which (for very good reason) do not allow attendance at schools in other boroughs, so it's not that a military family might be able to suck up a long commute to keep children in the same school, even if the military posting meant that was feasible. When a child moves schools with Army postings, it places extreme turbulence and strain on their education, and their friendship groups; my youngest once attended a new school for one day before having to move again.   

The two key components that CEA provides are stability and continuity. Stability of location, of friends, of routine, and the chance to develop support networks and familiarity with a local area. It provides continuity of education, especially through the critical stages of examinations, and through consistency of subjects, curriculum and to some extent, the teachers themselves.

My children experienced this stability and continuity only after joining boarding school aged 10. It has been difficult at times, and at the moment I am so far from the UK that I am only able to attend school once or twice a year. However, the peace of mind and surety we have as a family is by far the best choice available to us; and the alternative, moving schools so frequently, isn’t a choice I’d be willing to make, so boarding school has also allowed me to continue to serve.  What’s also super important to us is that full boarding is offered and highly subscribed to, because life in an empty boarding house isn’t much of a life at all. We're glad that Ampleforth provided that for us.


About Harriet Langdale

Harriet Langdale is director of admissions, marketing and communications at Ampleforth College.