6 April 2017

Free lunches won’t improve education


Jeremy Corbyn has come up with an interesting new policy platform: tax the moderately wealthy to give to…the fairly well-off.

He wants to impose VAT on private school fees so as to fund school meals for all primary school children. Children from poorer families already get free school meals. So that means giving free school meals to the children of better-off parents.

Each side of this policy is not entirely without rationale. If everyone had free school meals, then no one would be specially getting free school meals, so there’d be less risk of stigma (though if one eight-year-old wants to bully another one, I’m pretty confident some pretext will be found, and contrariwise removing the pretext of free school meals is unlikely to avoid bullying taking place by itself). In that sense, free school meals for all serves a role a bit like a school uniform. It’s not a ridiculous idea — merely an expensive one.

On the other side, private schools only avoid VAT because they are deemed to be charities. Some very traditional schools doubtless were well-characterised as charities originally, providing education for poor scholars. It’s harder to grasp why a school charging £30,000 per year to each of two children of parents earning £250,000 per year between them can be deemed “charities”.

Private schools’ charitable status has been under scrutiny for some time. They have come under pressure to prove they actually do something charitable. Some have responded by trying to use fees charged to parents to cross-subsidise more and more scholarships. Anecdotally, others might have responded with stranger practices, such as testing students to see if they can be deemed to have complex variants of dyslexia or dyspraxia, so the school can claim high proportions of “disability” among its students. There have also been concerns as to whether schools might collude, explicitly or implicitly, in the setting of fees.

What all this does flag up is how the interaction between the education system and wider society has become badly distorted. House prices reach extraordinary levels in areas close to good state schools. Churches, synagogues and mosques associated with strong faith schools have congregations which include significant proportions of non-believers who are there to achieve school entry. It’s all a bit of a mess.

The core issue, in my view, is connected to the basic failing in the UK’s welfare state, namely that it offers very little scope for working-class and middle-class people to prioritise their spending and saving so as to choose to receive more-than-average amounts of public services.

I have a relative who, in a foreign country in the 1960s, had her daughter go to a good school and later to university. To help fund this she used to rise each morning at 5 and chop wood. Other well-known practices include the jam jar into which savings were placed to pay the doctor if someone fell sick. Throughout the ages, the idea that parents might sacrifice something so that their children might have more opportunities — better health treatment, better education, and so on — than they did has been rightly seen as a definitive element of good parenting.

Similarly, providing the best care in old age – that we could manage ourselves or otherwise afford – has been seen as a key duty of children to their parents. But the current welfare state offers very limited opportunity for these expressions of love and social bonding.

Indeed, there are many people that would argue that the point of the welfare state is to eliminate this inequality — they don’t want some children to be better educated or some people to receive better healthcare because those that loved them were more prudent or more prepared to engage in self-sacrifice.

Such thinking even extends to the Conservative Party, where many cling to the wicked notion of “equality of opportunity” — one of the worst political concepts ever devised. Understood properly, it is the idea that each of us should succeed or fail purely on the basis of our own biological merits.  If you are beautiful, clever, witty, and healthy, you will get ahead in life.  If you are ugly, stupid, bad-tempered, and unhealthy you will fail – and no one is allowed to help you.

The normal bonds of human compassion and love, whereby we try to get our children a better education, or our nephew a first job, or to accommodate the blinded former soldier in our amateur dramatic production — these are all rejected in the Nietzschean dystopia of “meritocracy”.

No Conservative should favour such a society — for Conservatives value family, Church, philanthropy and community. We are all familiar with the supposed contradiction between equality and liberty. But I believe that the more important contradiction is that between equality and love.

One well-known mechanism to enable people to pay only the incremental cost for additional service is a top-up voucher. In such a system, people are able to port the funding they would receive for the state-provided service and spend it, adding their own money as they see fit, with private providers. The Conservatives proposed such a system for education in the early 2000s, though with the wholly misguided restriction that topping up with one’s own money was forbidden (thereby destroying the main merit of the scheme and rightly making it seem ludicrous in the eyes of the media).

However, vouchers also have another function: changing the basis of state support for public services, so that the state is funder but not necessarily provider, and giving people choice of product provider as well as choice of type of product. This creates a “horizontal” dimension of consumer choice — between providers of nearly the same service — as opposed to the “vertical” choice between fundamentally different levels of service that I believe is essential.

For certain public services, increasing horizontal choice may be a useful reform — and indeed Labour itself accepts this principle now in health and education. However, I believe that at a fundamental level this is a separate type of reform from the one above. It would be perfectly possible to have the state as a funder and monopoly provider of public services that, nonetheless, offered scope for people to purchase above the state’s own minimum level of provision.

A system in which every parent had an amount of money, funded through taxes, that could be spent in any school and added to by the parent’s own resources to any degree the parent wanted would make the very best education accessible to those of more modest means. I submit that the fairly well-off would much prefer that sort of flexibility to Corbyn’s concept of having their kids’ school lunches paid for them.

Andrew Lilico is an economist and political writer