Sir Keir Starmer insists he is not making an “attack” on private schools as he plans to introduce VAT on tuition fees if he wins the election.
The Labor leader said he was “very pleased” with the institutions as they criticized him over his policy, which would also see the end of tax exemptions for their businesses.
He also faced accusations of a “U-turn” after Labor abandoned plans to end the charitable status of private schools in England.
The party said the move was no longer necessary to meet its commitment to levy 20% VAT on tuition fees and force independent schools to start paying corporate rates.
Sir Keir said he did not believe these institutions were a barrier to opportunity, but he wanted state schools to be “as good”.
“We have to do something about the appalling state of our schools,” he told the BBC podcast Political Thinking with Nick Robinson.
“This is not an attack on private schools. It just goes to show that the exemption you had will soon be revoked.”
He also told private schools that they do not need to pass on additional costs to parents in the form of increased tuition fees.
“The school is not obligated to pass this on to parents as a fee. And every school is going to have to ask themselves if they want to do that,” he said.
Labor, as first reported by the i newspaper, says it no longer needs to strip schools of their charity status in order to charge them VAT, meaning some of the current benefits will remain.
The ability to claim grant aid in the form of donations and a waiver of taxes on annual profits that must be reinvested in education are among the tax benefits that this status provides.
Party sources noted they only intended to scrap VAT and business rates relief, saying charity status was being used more as shorthand for the policy.
A Labor Party spokesman said: “Our policy remains unchanged. We will eliminate unfair tax breaks that private schools enjoy to fund desperately needed teachers and mental health counseling in every high school.
“This does not require the removal of charitable status, but ensuring high and rising standards for every child in the face of a devastated economy requires a political choice. The Labor Party is not afraid to produce them.”
Julie Robinson, chief executive of the Council of Independent Schools, remained critical of the policy.
She said: “If Labor removes the tax benefits associated with the charitable status of independent schools, the policy will create a two-tier system in the charity sector, setting a worrying precedent in which any charitable work is seen as not reflecting the political ideology of the time. may be subject to additional taxes.
“We would like to work with Labor to find better ways to achieve our shared goal of improving education for all young people.”
When calculating the cost of Labour’s policies, only the levy of VAT on tuition fees and the end of business tax relief were taken into account, rather than other tax breaks.
But shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson has spoken of “removing charitable tax status for private schools to fund the most ambitious public school improvement plan in a generation.”
Chief Secretary to the Treasury John Glen said: “Labour has been forced to do a 180 degree U-turn on one of its major policies – this time admitting that raising taxes on schools simply doesn’t work.”
Also in the interview, Sir Keir spoke about his fears for his children, aged 12 and 15, whether he would succeed in becoming prime minister and how he would be “desperate” to maintain their privacy.
“That’s probably the only thing that’s bothering me about how we protect them,” he said.
“Now that we’re on stage, ‘Let’s take each day as it comes.’ So we don’t do any grand planning or anything like that.
“That would be, you know, presumptuous.” But we try to protect them.”