At Last – A Political Issue Other than Brexit

The Labour Party has come up with a policy. But is it the vote winner Mr Corbyn imagines it to be?

A future Labour government, we are told, will provide free school meals to all primary school pupils. This will be funded by imposing 20% VAT on private school fees.

The current rules provide for children to be given free school meals if their parents can’t afford them. Those who can afford them are expected to pay for them. This strikes me as being fair and reasonable. After all, it is generally thought to be the duty of parents to feed their children. It doesn’t seem to me to be cruel to expect them to perform that duty when their offspring happen to be at school. Why does Labour think otherwise?

Various theories are doing the rounds. The charitable one is that Labour has concluded that children who do not eat a proper lunch will not perform as well academically as those who do. Some parents, it is said, can afford to pay for meals for their children but either do not do so at all or provide wholly unsuitable packed lunches (crisps and coke?). The state must therefore step in.

Then, it has been suggested, this is Labour making a pitch for the middle class vote. Reasonably well-off parents of state school children will flock to Labour if that party will relieve them of the burden of feeding their children during term time. There are, of course, other middle class parents, those who pay for their children’s education, who may not be so grateful to Labour for being told they must pay for other people’s children to be fed. Nevertheless, it is true that there are more middle class children in state schools than in private schools, so that’s all right.

Another theory is that this is just a traditional Labour attack on private education. The average cost of sending a child to a private school must be in the region of £15,000 a year. That has to be paid out of taxed income. Between 20% and 25% of parents who send their children to private schools earn less, gross, than £50,000 a year. Increasing their fees from, say, £15,000 a year to £18,000 a year will probably be the straw that breaks the camel’s back: pupils at private schools will leave in droves and make their way to state schools. That, so the theory goes, will be a good thing because private schools are a bad thing and state schools are a good thing.

Let us take each theory in turn. The first one, the charitable one, is said to be based on the results of a pilot scheme in Newham and Durham. Labour claims that research into the scheme has demonstrated that free school meals for all “raise attainment”. In fact, it turns out, those responsible for the research have said it is far too early to make that claim. Anyway, it seems to me, there are other ways of ensuring children eat properly at school than making parents of privately educated children pay for the meals of state school children.

The problem, I take it, is that it is thought many parents opt to provide their children with packed lunches which are not nutritious rather than forking out the, very small, daily fee for lunch provided by the schools. I can’t imagine Labour is actually proposing to hand cash over to all these allegedly mean parents to encourage them to furnish their children with better packed lunches. The policy must be to require all children to have the meals provided by the schools, but not to charge them for those meals. I have to say, and many of my six readers will say this is horribly left wing of me, I have always thought it foolish to allow children to bring packed lunches to school. My own, state educated, children went to schools which simply didn’t permit packed lunches at all. We were required to pay extraordinarily modest amounts each term for proper lunches provided by the schools. Since, under Labour’s proposals, schools would have to lay on lunch for all children, I really don’t see what is so awful about requiring parents who can afford to do so to pay for them. There, that’s that theory dealt with.

Will middle class parents of state school children all vote Labour if that party promises to provide free lunches for their children? Of course, voters tend to be selfish. But it does seem to me to be unlikely that those who would otherwise be disposed to vote for other parties will change their allegiance because Labour is promising to save them something like £1.50 a day for school meals for their children. Maybe a few, very few, of them will become Labour supporters as a result of this promised generosity, but most, I suspect, will simply be bemused by the theory that it is the state’s not their, job to feed their children.

What about the final theory, the one which says that the number of children in private schools will be reduced if their parents are required to fork out £3,000 or more a year to pay for food for the children of well-off parents in the state sector? Well, it is probably true that many parents, faced with a 20% increase in school fees, would be unable to keep their children in private schools. They already give up holidays, new cars etc.. Having to find several thousands of pounds a year extra would be impossible. They would be forced to send their children to state schools. I can see that a certain type of Labour politician would think that to be very good. But the problem is that it would lead to a heavy increase in public expenditure. Parents who opt out of the state sector pay taxes which fund state education which they don’t use. If they have to take their children out of private schools and send them to state schools they will, obviously, increase the bill for state education (and not just by the cost of lunch). So the policy backfires. More money is needed. What will Labour do then? Increase the additional tax on private schools to 30% or 50%? But that will just lead to even more parents sending their children to state schools.

No, sorry to be so brutal, but I think Labour has got itself in an awful muddle with its brand new policy. Let’s hope the next one is better thought out.

Charles

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