A Labour government will impose VAT on private school fees to pay for free meals for all primary school pupils, Jeremy Corbyn has announced.
The Labour leader said the policy will boost the health and educational attainment of all children while ending a “subsidy to the privileged few”.
The announcement, being made on a visit to Leyland today, will be seen as an attempt to regain the political initiative following rows over the party’s poor showing in the opinion polls and allegations of anti-Semitism against Ken Livingstone.
Mr Corbyn has pointed to research showing that offering universal access to free school meals improves pupils’ productivity, enabling primary school pupils to advance by around two months on average.
The announcement is being discussed at a visit to the Leyland Project holiday club in Royal Avenue.
Mr Corbyn said: “No child in the UK should go hungry at school. By charging VAT on private school fees, Labour will make sure all primary school children, no matter what their background, get a healthy meal at school.
“The next Labour government will provide all primary school children with a free school meal, invest in our schools, and make sure no child is held back because of their background.”
Labour said the provision of free school meals also improves the health of pupils through better nutrition - with over 90% of pupils who have a school lunch consuming food or drink containing vegetables or fruit compared with just 58%
Children in reception year 1 and year 2 already get free school meals and Labour said that extending the scheme to all primary school pupils had been estimated to cost between £700 to £900 million a year.
The party said that an estimate by the Fabian Society in 2010 suggested that introducing VAT on private school fees could raise around £1.5 billion annually.
However a Conservative spokesman dismissed the plan saying: “Labour would wreck the economy if they ever got back into government - meaning there would be less money to spend on our schools, not more.
“Their economic incompetence means this promise isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.”
The Independent Schools Council (ISC), representing private schools, said Labour’s proposals did not add up and would force some smaller schools to close.
“A third of pupils at our schools are on reduced fees and are from families where both parents work hard to pay the fees,” said ISC general secretary Julie Robinson.
“If this measure was introduced smaller independent schools may close, driving more children back to be funded in the state system. 600,000 children are educated in independent schools, saving the taxpayer the cost of educating them.
“Independent schools are fully aware of their social responsibilities and offer free and reduced cost places to children from lower income homes.
“They also partner with state schools to offer support with sciences and languages, A-levels and university access, as well as sport and music.”
Kevin Courtney, National Union of Teachers (NUT) general secretary, said he was “not averse” to the idea of taxing “a luxury” such as private tuition to pay for free school meals.
He said: “We are seeing many pupils in schools who have entitlement to free school meals not taking it up because of the stigma.
“We are seeing other children whose parents are only just outside the free school meals (bracket) because they get a job, they get slightly more money, their children are taken out of free school meals, and that’s a real problem.
“We know that obesity is a problem in our society, so having universally provided, high quality free school meals for all primary children, we think, would be a good thing.
“But it does not deal with the fundamental funding crisis that schools face, and we want to see politicians talking about how they’re also going to get the funding they need.”
Gavin Williamson, Tory MP and Treasury Secretary, is also visiting C&W Berry Limited in Leyland today to chat to apprentices at the factory.