Free School Meals for All

Aaron Bastani

On Thursday, Labour outlined plans to apply VAT on private school fees to fund free school meals for every primary pupil in England. The numbers add up: the provision would cost £900 million a year, and the prospective tax would raise far more than that. Speaking alongside the shadow education secretary, Angela Rayner, Jeremy Corbyn said the measure would help ensure that ‘no child is held back because of their background.’

Free school meals are far from gesture politics; their nutritional and cognitive benefits, especially for poorer children, are well documented. The coalition government introduced free school meals for all children up to the age of seven, and older children from low-income families are eligible through means testing. But that isn’t enough. According to a recent poll, nearly eight out of ten teachers see hungry children in school at least once a week. The survey also found that a third of teachers have brought food into work for pupils who were going without breakfast. It's unsurprising, then, that the immediate response to Labour’s proposals from the National Union of Teachers was overwhelmingly positive.

But the criticism on Twitter came within minutes. This is a ‘Liberal Democrat policy’, some people complained, as if political parties could patent half-decent ideas (and even though Labour wanted to do it in 1945). It will alienate ‘middle-class voters’, admonished others, as if the parents of the 7 per cent of children who go to private schools were the ‘middle’ class. ‘Failed politics of envy’, gargled other fault-finders, as if applying a consumption tax on a service was tantamount to erecting barricades on the Mall. Wait till you buy a meal at your favourite restaurant, comrades.

And yet the most common criticism didn’t focus on the VAT measure, or Corbyn’s class war politics, but alleged that universal provision was regressive. In offering free school meals to every child, Labour was doling out subsidies for the middle class rather than making precise interventions to help the very poorest. In a time of limited resources, that was both profligate and reckless. (When will Corbyn resign?)

The most persistently destructive tendency of the modern centre-left is to mistake the charity of the patrician for the solidarity of an effective and well-functioning welfare state. This view, while often well-intentioned, has done as much over recent decades to sink the postwar consensus as the honest zealotry of those who wished to dismember it altogether. As a defensive position, restricting welfare provision to those who most need it is understandable, doubly so in the context of austerity. But it’s a dead end. It means the left is incapable of offering a broader vision that bridges electoral groups, and concedes ground to the malicious view that all state intervention is bad, and all those who use it are parasitic. Meanwhile, income inequality has increased and social mobility has declined.

It’s almost twenty years since Walter Korpi and Joakim Palme showed that countries with the most universal government programmes were the most successful in reducing hardship. Means testing requires people to jump through bureaucratic hoops and carries a stigma, both of which can deter people from applying for services. Non-universal welfare provision also loses the consent of those who think they are net losers. As with other forms of collective insurance, the more we think we stand to gain, the more willing we are to contribute. That is why the National Health Service (founded on the principles that it meet the needs of everyone, be free at the point of delivery and be based on clinical need, not ability to pay) topped a recent list of institutions – ahead of the armed forces and the royal family – that make people proud to be British. Few in power could dare to admit it, but it’s also the closest thing modern Britain has to socialism.

Labour’s free school meal policy polled well almost immediately, with 52 per cent supporting it and only 27 per cent opposed. Charity, when it comes to public services, is a dud. Many who pay for it feel short-changed, while those use it are vilified. It's time for the left to ditch means testing, and re-embrace the universal principle – it’s effective, and it’s popular.


  • 8 April 2017 at 7:52am
    Joe Morison says:
    Tax wealth, tax high incomes, provide free school meals; but don’t put an extra burden on private schools. If you don’t have the luxury of moving to an area with good state schools (we, for example, are council tenants), you have a choice between making massive sacrifices to pay for private education or sending your children to schools that nobody who has seen them would willingly inflict on their children. My wife and I chose the former, and we knew plenty of other parents there in a similar situation.

    • 8 April 2017 at 9:18am
      frmurphy98 says: @ Joe Morison
      Sounds reasonable. But what of the majority of parents, who can't afford private schools even if they make massive sacrifices?

    • 8 April 2017 at 9:45am
      ejh says: @ Joe Morison
      What was the name of this apparently horrendous school?

    • 9 April 2017 at 6:16am
      Joe Morison says: @ frmurphy98
      You are right and it is a scandal. I watched some of those children grow up, and their lives have tended to work out in a depressingly clichéd way - to see such bright potential wasted is heartbreaking. But, like any parents, we did what we could for our children. I want to live in a country where there is no need for private schools, but I was not prepared to sacrifice my children’s futures in order to take one tiny step towards that goal. The hypocrisy of those who use their wealth to buy property in an area with good state schools, and then condemn those who cannot do the same is glaring.
      The way to make state schools better is to fund them by taxing the rich, not by attacking private schools - most of them are a struggling financially as it is, as are a lot of those paying the fees.

    • 9 April 2017 at 6:26am
      Joe Morison says: @ ejh
      I live in a poor inner London borough (poor with property worth a surreal amount), and the schools here are typical. All around us is drug dealing, gangs, and guns (2 shooting fatalities within 1/2 km of our flat in the last five years). All the young people around us doing that now were in those schools then. I listen them on the bus: on the one hand, their language is amazing - I've never heard an impression that gets even close; on the other hand, the things they are saying, what one can infer about their lives, is tragic.

    • 9 April 2017 at 9:46am
      whisperit says: @ Joe Morison
      How could anyone condemn a parent for trying to get the best for their child? But the private/state split has long been a system for entrenching privilege and reproducing the division between rulers and ruled. This may not be what individual parents say they want, but it is what we get.

      Funding school meals provision from the resources of private schools reasserts the reality that has been denied under the recent dishonest framing of education policy as being all about "increasing parental choice".

      For it to be more than tinkering, though, Labour's policy would have to be part of a wider argument to roll back marketisation in education wholesale, including reversing academisation and support for religious schools.

      What happens in and around the state system is another debate, but we have to start somewhere.

  • 8 April 2017 at 12:11pm
    streetsj says:
    Is there any data to show what the VAT application would raise? What are the assumptions about the number of children who would no longer go to private school after a 20% increase in fees? How much extra would it cost to educate them in the public sector? Could the state system handle them all?

    Political parties, quite rightly, are quizzed on how their initives will be funded, but there is no need for this matching of revenue and expenditure in one silo. The free meals should be assessed entirely separately the VAT on private school fees, there is no reason at all to connect the two.

    There is, I believe, a more nuanced proposal for applying to VAT to private education. the reason private schools are charities is because they provide education. The fees could be split into two elements: educative and not. So all the costs of boarding should be VAT able. You could argue either way on whether extra curricula activities should be VATable. And clearly the costs of providing lessons should not be. It wouldn't raise as much revenue but nor would it drive pupils into the state sector in the same numbers.

  • 8 April 2017 at 12:40pm
    RobotBoy says:
    You have diagnosed the crippling disease of the center-left to perfection. As an American activist once put it: 'We shall eliminate slums for Negroes when we destroy ghettos and build new cities for ALL. We shall eliminate unemployment for Negroes when we demand full and fair employment for ALL.'
    Pretty sure the man's name was Martin Luther King.
    I've often wondered how quickly public schools would improve if private schools ceased to exist. 'In two weeks' is probably a conservative estimate.

  • 8 April 2017 at 1:44pm
    Fred Skolnik says:
    Here's a quick take on public school education in the West:

  • 9 April 2017 at 11:34am
    Ouessante says:
    Yep. Agree. The doe-eyed attractions of (yes, well-meaning) 'issue politics' have distracted the democratic left from the real engine of general welfare: universal economic mitigation of the toxicity of wealth priviledge. The neo-liberal, post-critical agenda is all pervasive now and IMHO can only be tackled by fundamental counter-narrative not by acquiescing in 'targeting the deserving poor'. Thanks LRB.

    • 9 April 2017 at 11:54am
      RobotBoy says: @ Ouessante
      Not to mention that 'issue politics' encourages tribal thinking and lead directly to competition between ethnic groups. President Donald Trump certainly appreciates the help.

  • 10 April 2017 at 8:33am
    simonpawley says:
    It's not a bad idea, but it's not one good enough to be the flagship education policy. At least, not at a moment when the government is planning the biggest cuts to school funding (per pupil) in decades, and is rather on the back foot about those plans because a good number of its own backbenchers are nervous about the effects on schools in their own constituencies.
    I am in general reasonably sceptical about the conventional back and forth of parliamentary debate, and even of centrists critiques of Labour under Corbyn failing to engage in 'effective opposition'. But this does seem like quite a strong example: the party is not focusing sufficiently on these damaging proposals or setting out alternative proposals for schools funding. Curiously enough, I think this is in part not because it is too utopian and detached from reality, but rather because it is hamstrung by the same kind of fiscal defensiveness as it was under Ed Miliband's leadership. The chief reason for being coy about school funding cuts is not wanting to be drawn into questions about which taxes would be raised to pay for them. Even so, simply repurposing the money the government is pouring into 'free schools' and new grammars would give them a bit to play with...

  • 10 April 2017 at 12:22pm
    Rikkeh says:
    The real story is that it's the first time in a while that Labour has acted as a well functioning opposition.

    -Relatively uncontroversial message? Check. Who doesn't like feeding children?

    -Difficult to attack? Check. Are you *against* feeding kids?

    -Decent delivery? Check. Gone are the tortuous twitter slogans bemoaned by the New Statesmen. In are the memes with pictures of smiley children and in also (more importantly) is news coverage of the proposal.

    -Sends a message about what Labour are about in a way which favourably distinguishes them from the Conservatives in the eyes of people who might vote for them? Check. We care about you people and we're going to soak the kind of people who make up the other party to get you nice things.

  • 10 April 2017 at 2:31pm
    Graucho says:
    The meal to focus on is breakfast. Open school at 6am offer a boiled egg, a glass of milk and a slice of bread. Obvious exceptions for allergies of course. Children get a nutritious start, you do not need an expensive kitchen, just a large kettle and a large fridge. The parents both of whom generally have to work to raise a family in this day and age find they can drop off the kids and get into the workplace without complication and expense.

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