Labour’s announcement today of a policy of charging VAT on private school fees to make £1 billion available, to offer free school meals to all students, has divided Twitter over the case for and against universalism. Or, as the ever readable @youngvulgarian put it…
I’ve argued the case against universal free school meals (hereafter referred to as ‘FSM’) which, I’ve learned, means that I’m against feeding children.
Straw-men aside, the points I’ve seen raised in favour of universal FSM have been:
- It removes the stigma of those who have to take FSM by necessity.
- Means testing is inherently wrong
- Why should we have universal health-care if the universal FSM are so wrong?
- It’s nice to feed all children
I’m not going to argue that point. Feeding all kids would be brilliant. I’m not against feeding children. I completely agree with a point raised, by a teacher, that hungry kids don’t learn. Eliminating hungry kids is a massively worthy goal, both from an educational viewpoint and as a display of basic human decency.
If you guessed that the next word was going to be “but” then you’re right…or would have been if I hadn’t put in this sentence congratulating you for your blog-smarts.
When I’m not writing tedious blogs, or mucking about on Twitter, or doing whatever it is I do to make a living, I spend my time being a school governor. I’m both the chair of the governing body that I sit on and the chair of their resources committee. This means that a disproportionate amount of my time is spent squeezing every penny out of the school’s budget. These are desperate times for schools; nationally around £3.5bn, in real terms, has been removed from the under-18’s educational budget over the past 5 years, or around £340 per pupil per year.
I took half a day’s holiday from work yesterday to spend it in a meeting finalising the budget for the current financial year, and it was a grim affair. Teachers had to make do with wishy-washy hopes for a better future in place of structured (and deserved) career development, there was no money for IT or for scheduled maintenance of the school buildings, bought in services for substitute teacher insurance schemes, HR support and staff training were all cut back to lower levels. The music and library schemes both went last year, fixing the water-logged end of the school field or the potholes in the car-park have been unattainable dreams for as long as I’ve been a governor, we spent a long time wondering if we can find somewhere cheaper to rent a photocopier.
Perhaps the saddest thing of all is that, in the whole budget, we found a mere £1,000 for ‘Educational materials’. That’s to buy books, tools to help teach maths and phonics and IT, paints and craft items, the everyday detritus of education…and this for a school of 4-9 year olds, who are really stimulated by the new, but tend to lose or damage existing resources.
Hungry kids don’t learn, but neither to kids devoid of stimulation and starved of interest.
Nationally around 16% of children take a FSM. If, from the remainder, 3 times that many have a home that struggles to feed them (and I’d consider that estimate to be very high) then still more than half of the £1 billion spend would be going to providing meals for kids living in homes that are not having any difficulty feeding them.
And, yes, means testing is generally awful and, yes, it will always create some cases where somebody undeserving gets something while someone more deserving gets nothing, but the alternative is spending £500 million where it’s genuinely not needed, won’t eliminate a single hungry kid and will just free up a few extra quid a month in a household that isn’t counting the pennies.
That £½ billion could be used to replace some of the funds that schools have lost, or it could be used to help those most in need, because it’s not just meals that poor kids miss out on. There are school trips, after-school clubs, wrap-around care, things that don’t have the slogan potential of “Feed all children!”, but are part of socialising and growing the children and preventing a split into haves and have-nots. Social delineation does not begin and end at meal times.
On that note, for those playing on the stigma of FSM – have they set foot in an actual school in the last 20 years? Kids aren’t queuing up to hand over lunch-money; direct debits, electronic payments and canteen swipe cards have replaced the cash economy. There is – or at least should be – no visible difference between those whose meals account is topped up from a Swiss bank account and those whose food is courtesy of Westminster.
Which leaves the stickiest point until last – if we rail against universal FSM then why not against universal health-care? I find that most worrying, not because I think it counters any of the arguments I’ve made against universalism, but because it doesn’t counter a single one of them. I wholeheartedly support the NHS, I defend it, my wife works in it, I’d always want it to be there…but I find myself wondering if I’m wrong about it.
Maybe, sometimes, we can’t have something just because it’s brilliant.