The Labour Party’s new proposal to fund universal free school meals by charging VAT on school fees shows that the triumph of populist ideology over common sense is not limited to right-wing parties. I normally have a lot of respect for Angela Rayner but this piece of Corbynite dogma is both unfair and ineffective.
Not everyone who sends their child to a private school is a wealthy oligarch. The collapse of mental health services for children and the hollowing out of support staff by repeated rounds of education cuts mean that state schools are intolerable for a growing number of pupils. Even a special needs diagnosis is no longer a guarantee of the daily support that allows a vulnerable child to feel safe and confident in a pressured school environment. Many parents on modest incomes make huge sacrifices reluctantly to send such children to independent schools. They see their child falling apart and who can blame them?
If we really want to hammer elitism in education, it would make more sense to tackle the scandal of elite public schools being able to tax-dodge by defining themselves as charities and, of course, to call our Teresa May’s obsession with grammar schools for the divisive vanity project it is.
But I don’t just have issues with that side of this policy. I’m not sure free school meals for all are the best way to improve outcomes across the board either. Many of the children who would be entitled to them don’t like school meals, don’t want them and don’t need them. When the Liberal Democrats introduced the policy for KS1 children alone many schools struggled to upgrade their kitchens and recruit staff for the growing numbers – a situation that labour shortages post-Brexit is unlikely to make any easier.
It is undoubtedly true that far too many children arrive at school too hungry to behave themselves and concentrate in lessons. But a more effective way to help them would be to fund a nationwide network of breakfast clubs. That would help children who haven’t eaten properly since their free school meal the day before. Schools that have introduced breakfast clubs have seen significant increases in attendance and improvement in the behaviour and learning of their most disadvantaged children. They are an incentive for parents with otherwise chaotic lifestyles to get their kids into school, and can be introduced quickly and easily as part of wraparound care provision.
If Labour really want to tackle deprivation and its impact on children’s learning chances, this would meet the goal far more effectively than school dinners for the middle classes.