Free school meals
Jeremy Corbyn has pledged to pay for universal free school meals out of private school VAT funds.
It’s about time
I have enduring memories of being mocked in the primary school lunch queue as I queued up for limp, watery potato wedges and pizza that I still believe was carved from plywood and painted. On a separate table, sequestered from us, the “packed lunch children” sat together, sneering at our post-nuclear food. Even if many were just chowing down on cheap cholesterol and sugar, to be a pack lunch child was to acquire a superior status, just like those who sat at the High Table where we ate our (subsidised) dinners many years later at university. At said university, I was one of only 0.8% of students who had been on free school meals at school.
My secondary school, while a comprehensive, was lucky to have a generous group of trustees. For much of my time there, a free breakfast club operated providing generous, healthy options in the morning. It brought people together, and ensured we went into our morning lessons sharp, and alert.
Services for the poor will always be poor services. They will always leave those who are still poor but just outside the poverty line feeling resentful. They will always allow the fomenting of social coalitions between rich and middle based on the belief that the poor get all the free stuff. They will always be targets for shredding during austerian times — because you can kick the bottom 10% in the teeth and get away with it. Universalism works — which is why many of the right-wingers who moan about the “squeezed middle” don’t like it when the “squeezed middle” are actually offered state support.
Three out of four teachers in Britain have seen a child go to school hungry. Teachers — themselves underpaid and under-resourced — are often expected to buy bits of coloured ribbon and reward chocolates for their young charges — but these days they report buying food, clothes, blankets, and medical supplies. There are schools in 21st Century Britain that resemble aid missions in disaster zones. In the borough where I live, one in two children are in poverty. Something has to give.
Soak the rich
The Sun slams Corbyn’s moderate pledge as “class war.” But class war is the private schools that dominate the giddy heights of public, political and cultural life. Class war is using financial privilege to push your kids to the front of the social queue, away from all the other kids who don’t share their social class. Class war is a Spectator columnist two weeks ago ranting that Oxford has gone to the dogs because a wealthy pal of his can’t bribe their child’s way in.
We don’t give Bollinger champagne, Porsche cars or Cartier jewellery tax breaks for being charitable. But we still allow luxury education services to get away with a similar tax status to food banks. Redressing this balance is long overdue.
The reason we have taxes is to collect from the better-off a share of the resources they have earned, in large part through access to public assets and services built up over the history of the British state, to fund the furthering of those services and the improvement of the overall public good. Funnelling money from private schools to fund food for non-private schools is an example of what tax is literally there to do.
It is only the beginning
Universal free school meals is a step in the right direction, but hardly a new one. Local authorities have implemented it already. During the summer, the Corbyn leadership campaign promised us root-and-branch reform of Britain’s embattled education system, with its collapsing buildings, its overexamined children, its overworked teachers and its dodgy profiteers. The “National Education Service”, it was called. A range of good ideas were signalled — increasing access to the arts and culture for children springs to mind.
School reform is on the agenda. It is there in part because of a series of cack-handed ideological offensives on part of the Tories, from new grammar schools to pay restraint to Nicky Morgan trying to ban six year olds from celebrating their exam results (this honestly happened.) It is also there because of the stunning organising efforts of the teaching unions, who have recruited new organisers, established new alliances, and are more united and present in communities than at any time in recent history.
Labour has dipped its toes in the water. Now it needs to be ready to meet what’s coming with a fleshed-out, bold vision of what schools and schooling should look like in the future — in consultation with teachers, parents, and yes, children. Our movement must be ready to learn, and to teach.