Parents of children at independent schools will be used to regularly assessing the affordability of school fees against their finances – school fees have increased ahead of inflation for the past 25 years. However, with the next general election approaching, and Labour’s pledge to add VAT to private school fees within their first year of government, families could be hit with significantly increased fees as soon as the next academic year. This change could make private schooling unaffordable for some families and bring about concerns about how easily (and when) a good state alternative could be found. 

This possibility may be especially worrying for separated or divorced parents, who are committed to a court-imposed obligation to discharge school fees until their children reach the end of their secondary education. If Labour do form the next government, there may be increasing numbers of parents who seek to vary their court obligations on the grounds of affordability. 

Separated couples often struggle with funding two households on divorce. The higher earning party may struggle to continue paying school fees if, for example, they are also obliged to pay spousal and child maintenance (as well as solely fund a mortgage on their home). Issues of affordability can also arise years after separation, as children grow older, and one parent wants to send their child to a more expensive school than the other is willing to agree. The decision as to where children are educated falls to both parents to be agreed under their parental responsibility, so disagreements over such issues can lead to litigation – with the court making the ultimate decision. 

However, even in those cases where the court has already made a decision, the addition of VAT onto school fees, especially if schools choose to pass the entire 20% rise in costs onto parents, could arguably be a change of circumstances leading to a parent seeing to vary the court’s previous decision. If, for example, a parent was paying annual school fees of £31,000 (the average cost to send a child to boarding school in 2023), and had three children, they would already be paying £93,000 per annum. A 20% increase on those fees, would push the annual figure closer to £112,000, requiring them to be earning circa £200,000 gross per annum just to cover the cost of the school fees. 

However, there are always risks of returning a matter to court, and a parent seeking to absolve themselves of a school fees liability could find themselves facing a cross-application for increased spousal maintenance (with the other party arguing that their ex-spouse could afford to pay them more maintenance if they were no longer paying school fees).

There may also be issues over timing. Family courts are already overwhelmed with current cases, and an application about the cost of private schooling could take a year to resolve through a court-based process. Meanwhile, some options for the child’s schooling may be “off the table” if applications cannot be made or accepted in time because parents are waiting for the issue to be resolved in court. Over a time-sensitive matter like their child’s education, families might be better served by considering mediation and arbitration, for quicker and arguably less expensive outcomes.