This week Jeremy Corbyn launched a brand new policy idea to give free school meals to every primary school pupil in the country. Labour announced that the project would be funded by charging VAT on private school fees which they estimated would cover the £900m cost per year for the universal meals commitment.
The idea was quite warmly received as many applauded the universality of the idea and the fact that any stigma attached to receiving free school meals currently would be taken away. It also provides a solution to the growing problem of children not focusing or concentrating at school due to parents being unable to afford to feed their family thoroughly. Conservatives decided against criticising the idea too heavily while Liberal Democrats supported but added that it was merely an extension of something they achieved in coalition government.
Despite the warm response by most to the idea, there were critical voices from some within the education sector. Former Ofsted chief inspector, Sir Michael Wilshaw, broadly agreed with how the money was being raised but did not give such support for the spending idea, awarding the idea a 6 out of 10 in an interview on BBC Radio 4. Schools Week magazine editor, Laura McInerney, was also critical of how the money was being spent as it would partially be feeding those who don’t require the support.
The Current Education Climate
Firstly it seems clear that the majority of politicians, journalists and general public do not have much of an issue with how the funds for this idea are being raised. Private schools enjoy charitable status that affords them tax breaks that public schools do not enjoy, the idea of charging VAT seems to be on the whole an acceptable way of raising money for education more generally.
However it is important to take note of the current climate in education when looking at this policy specifically. Falling numbers of teachers in training, a growing number of teachers leaving the profession each year, an increasing number of pupils and crucially, a large £3bn cut in funding to schools with a majority of schools facing budget crisis’s in the near future. It is this background which makes the spending of this money look slightly more like a gimmick.
With this climate in mind the decision to extend free school meals to those who may not absolutely require it looks like ignoring the basic issues. A billion pounds pumped in to education could be used by head teachers for many school essentials such as helping to avoid ballooning class sizes, or to employ extra teachers or teaching assistants, to buy resources or for breakfast and after school clubs. These ideas demonstrably support progress of children while the, admittedly admirable and utopian, free school meals idea is probably not where this money could best be utilised or provide the best outcome.
While no one can argue about the basic need for properly fed children in school, this could be solved more comprehensively by tackling the reasons behind over a million people using food banks. There will still be months without school where children will face these issues and the problems associated with them at home. A breakfast club initiative or continuing the current free school meals year-long may have been better options than this universal idea which does little to solve issues when schools are on break. The idea does however provide a boost for those not currently able to access free school meals but can still manage to feed their children outside of school more adequately than others less fortunate.
The idea may also cause schools logistical problems as they would have to find ways of cooking for, and providing facilities for, a lot more school meals. With growing pupil numbers and falling staff rates this may prove difficult to fund even after the money raised from the VAT rise especially as schools may also be forced to invest in new kitchen facilities to implement this policy. In 2013 after the coalition government implemented a Lib Dem policy of free school meals for all infants many smaller schools found it financially challenging to meet this new provision. That was provisions for just a third of all primary pupils, the financial and building implications for the full primary age range would be a much larger scale. The logistical and finer details of implementing this plan do not seem to be thoroughly thought out nor do the finances after these issues are taken in to account.
Finally, although few will have sympathy for those struggling to pay for a private school considering the economic context in the current austere times, there will be an impact on public schools from a price rise in the private sector. There will be a minority of families who will no longer be able to afford private school and will turn to the public sector and nudge higher still a demand for places that the public education system is struggling to cope with. Facilities, class sizes, numbers of staff will all need to increase, adding pressure to budgets that will not be supported by the VAT windfall.
In a system where teacher recruitment and retention levels are falling due to workload and stress, class sizes are growing, school budgets are under greater pressure than ever before and facilities need upgrading the extra responsibility and potential extra pupils resulting from this policy will not be welcomed. Jeremy Corbyn appears to have decided to add the cherry to the education system before even thinking about the ingredients for the cake