It’s about time! Labour has made a policy commitment to impose VAT on private school fees and use the money raised to finance the provision of free school meals for all children in primary schools.
Just 7% of children go to private schools. They are overwhelmingly from wealthier, more privileged families — people who should be paying more tax. The 83% of children who go to state schools will benefit from the free school meals policy. It will ease the financial pressures on families who currently just fail the “means test” for free school meals; who may not realise that they qualify; or who are put off from claiming free school meals for fear of being stigmatised (especially in schools where children would be required to queue separately or hand over special tokens in the canteen).
The End Child Poverty Coalition reports that four million children in the UK are now living in relative poverty. Research by The Food Foundation has shown that in 2014, 8.4 million people (about 10% of the population) were living in food insecurity (they report being unable to obtain enough food to live healthily). Cuts and freezes in benefits (especially child benefits) are worsening this situation.
Research shows a big increase in the number of people relying on food banks, indicates that food insecurity is increasing.
Policy that redistributes some income and wealth from some of the wealthiest people towards the majority of families and provides free, healthy, nutritional food is more than overdue. It would mean that there would be no financial incentive to send a child to school with a cheap, unhealthy packed lunch. It would also mean that parents would be able to spend more of their income on healthy, nutritional food for family meals at home (or to be less in debt, or less compelled to cut back on other essentials such as home heating).
Predictably there has been outcry from those who object that Labour’s policy will unfairly penalise those (untypical for private schools) families on modest incomes who make sacrifices (cutting back on family holidays, the size of the family home etc.) in order that they can afford the school fees.
What will these families do if VAT on school fees is implemented? In some cases, say the parents, their children will have to leave their school and go to a state school. Changing schools can be a difficult for a child, but many children do this anyway, for all sorts of reasons. It would be progress if more children go to state schools than private schools. In particular, for “clued-up”, middle-class parents to seek to find an escape for their children from what may be “struggling” or “under-performing” state schools is no answer to the problems in those schools. Comprehensive education works well when there is a broad social mix, and where academically motivated students and their families (whatever their income level), are involved with, committed to, and supportive of, schools that serve the whole community.
Private schools and grammar schools both represent attempts to improve education for individual children at the expense of most children in society. The objections to VAT on school fees are, in that sense, similar to the support for opening new grammar schools in England. It gives up on education as a universal service with quality provision for all and seeks only to create islands of quality for those ″deserving enough″ to have passed an entrance exam.
As well as the announcement for free school meals, Labour points out cuts to Sure Start centres, the 22,500 unqualified teachers in England’s schools, and the half a million children being taught in classes of over 30. Their statement says that “Labour will invest to ensure the highest standards in schools, with every child cherished and supported”. There is no specific mention, however, of how much will be invested or of reversing the real-terms cuts that are currently being imposed on schools between now and 2020.
There are welcome commitments to reintroduce the Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA) that helps to support students in post-16 education; and to bring back maintenance grants for half a million students in higher education. But Labour could go a lot further than this — and it needs to do so.
Labour’s campaign statement concludes with the words: “A good education should not be a privilege. It’s every child’s right. Labour will stand up for all our young people and ensure that all children, whatever their background, receive the high quality education they deserve.”
To be true to these words, Labour should present a bold, radical vision for education — levelled up and increased school funding, reversing cuts; converting academies and free schools into locally accountable community schools; free, high-quality nursery education and childcare provision; free further and higher education with grants for all students; and much more! Labour should also be willing to tax the wealthiest in society to implement this programme.
• Read Labour′s policy here