Private schools - like petrol, cigarettes and alcohol - should be taxed for the cost they bring to society. They help keep the rich rich and the poor poor through recruiting the best teachers and headteachers for children who are already at an advantage before even starting school. Parents should be free to send their child to private school, but only if they pay the cost it involves to society: The cost to children in comprehensive schools who are deprived of the best teachers, and the cost to the country at large for creating a more fundamentally unjust and divided society.
In economics, an 'externality' occurs when a transaction is made that has an effect on individuals other than those who take part in or consent to the transaction. For example, if I had flu, I might choose to purchase some medicine to make me better. This transaction not only affects me, making me well again, but also affects others: e.g. when I am better I am able to go back to work, benefiting the company I work for; I am also less likely to spread my flu on to others, benefiting other individuals I have close contact with. The 'externality' of me purchasing some medicine, then, is the effect it has on my friends and the firm I work for. Externalities can be positive (as with the medicine example) or negative. Petrol, cigarettes and alcohol are the most common examples of negative externalities. Purchasing and using petrol contributes towards global warming - which has a negative effect on our planet and everyone on it. Drinking large amount of alcohol can lead to anti-social behavior and also bad health, which can cost tax payers money on the NHS (both of which are negative externalities.) Cigarettes also cost the NHS money as well as producing second-hand smoke which many individuals find unpleasant. I believe that private education also produces a negative externality.
Normally, governments will tax products that produce a negative externality. They do this so that the price individuals pay for their product reflects the higher cost to society that consuming their product involves. For example, governments tax petrol so that the price of petrol goes up, meaning that individuals are likely to purchase less, reducing the impact of car use on global warming. Cigarettes are taxed to discourage individuals from smoking and also to help pay for the extra cost that smokers bring to the NHS when they need to be treated for smoking-related illnesses such as lung cancer. Currently, private schools do not face high levels of tax - as cigarettes, alcohol and petrol do. In fact, many private schools are registered as charities and receive tax breaks from the government.
So what's so bad about private schools? I believe that they produce a negative externality as they lead to higher levels of social immobility - they keep the rich rich, and the poor poor - and also lead to class divides. Private schools should be taxed to reflect this cost that they bring to society. I am not against parental choice when it comes to deciding which school to send their children. I believe people should be free to do whatever they want - smoke, drink, drive or send their children to private school - so long as they don't harm others, or at least pay higher rates of tax in order to negate the harm that they do.
The only factor that has been shown to be able to narrow this gap in academic performance is excellent teaching and school leadership. This is why charities such as Teach First try to develop top graduates to teach in under-performing schools: this is the only way to give children from disadvantaged families a fairer start in life. Private schools are something that we should tax not only because it is fundamentally unfair that someone's chance in life should be affected by arbitrary factors such as their parents wealth, and also that they can contribute to social tension and class divides between the rich and poor - private schools do something much worse than that: they actively harm those in the state system by recruiting the best teachers and headteachers.
At the moment, the best teachers tend to flock to private schools - where they are paid more, class sizes are smaller and children are better behaved. This leaves children in the worst comprehensive schools with teachers that tend not (although not always) to be of as high a quality; and also who tend to stay at a school for much less time - so that they don't get a chance to get to know their students properly and also often leave in the middle of a school year. Private schools (and also, to an extent, grammar schools) are actively harming our state education system: They are depriving comprehensive schools of the best teachers and headteachers and stopping the children who most need it of a decent education, allowing the gap between the rich and poor to widen even further, and adding to class divides within society. Yes, parents should have the choice to be able to send their children to private school if they wish - but only if they pay higher rates of tax to reflect the cost that sending their children to private school brings to society: just as smokers pay more tax to reflect the cost on the NHS, and road users pay tax on petrol to reflect the cost to the environment.
Defenders of private schools will claim that they are justified in not paying higher rates of tax because if they didn't send their children to private school, they would be in the state system, costing the state even more money. This is not a good argument. As I mentioned above, research shows the single thing that is most needed to close the educational gap between the rich and the poor is exceptional teachers and headteachers. If fewer students went to private school, more of the best teachers would teach in the state sector. Even if class sizes got bigger as a result of fewer parents opting to send their children to private school this would still be a good thing. Excellent teachers matter far more than smaller class sizes.
Taxing private schools is good for two reasons: Firstly, it would raise money for the government to spend on increasing social mobility (i.e., the ability of individual's from a more disadvantaged background to become successful), and secondly, it would create a disincentive for parents to send their children to private school, creating a more equal society though freeing up more of the best teachers to teach in state schools. Any money raised from taxing private schools should be used as a 'Pupil Premium', as advocated by the Liberal Democrats in the run up to the recent 2010 election. A Pupil Premium would give each school extra money for every pupil it has from a disadvantaged background, e.g. money for each child it has which is eligible for Free School Meals. Schools should be allowed to spend this extra money to recruit the best teachers to teach their (more disadvantaged) pupils. Schools with the pupils which tend to start off school with lower levels of education from more deprived families would have access to the best and most inspirational teachers - this is the only way to begin to narrow the attainment gap between the rich and the poor, and the only way to create a truly mobile society where an individual's chances in life are not (to a large extent) determined by the wealth of their parents. Taxing private schools - like taxing cigarettes, alcohol and petrol - is fair: It allows people the freedom to do what they want, so long as they are willing to pay for the price of their actions.