Friday, 14 March 2014

Is Free Education A Benefit?

There's been a lot of hot air recently about the Lib Dem announcement of free schools meals for all infants from September 2014.

Many (mostly on the left) have shouted loudly about spending money on the children of millionaires whilst others have attempted to justify the scheme on the basis of the results of a rather inconclusive-at-best pilot scheme. Others still have argued about the existing potential for affluent neglect and how it's shocking that in the 21st Century there are reports of children collapsing at school from a lack of food.

I think we can all agree that children should be eating three square meals per day, etc., etc. but the right (and classical liberals in particular) should know better than try and form policy to cater to isolated incidents and flimsy evidence. At a time when we're fighting to means-test many universal benefits it seems hypocritical to be rolling out new ones.

To me this raises a much larger question and serves as a demonstration of how centrist and uncontroversial our modern-day politics have become. We're happy to squabble over the most efficient spending of an additional £600 million per year extending provision to those who are better off but no one will raise the fact that we already spend more than £60 billion every year funding universal education for the exact same beneficiaries.

Why is it right that everyone in state education should receive a near identical experience from the start of the day to the end with the only exception being lunch hour arrangements? (This ignores, of course, the existing stratification of richer and poorer children by school and area.) Why should the entirety of a child's education be paid for by the state, regardless of your wealth, with a strange exemption for lunchtimes, uniforms and trips off-site?

There is a regular fuss made in the media about whether Blair, Cameron, Clegg, Gove, etc. choose to state educate their children or not. Again, it seems bizarre that we attempt to encourage them to avoid spending their own substantial wealth and instead take a benefit from the state when the money could be better deployed.

Why do those who feel anger at giving the like of Messrs Clegg and Cameron an additional £400 benefit per year not feel the same anger at spending around £6,000 educating their children in the first place? Surely it is rational that the state either pays for the entirety of a child's educational experience regardless of parental income or it moves to a system for defining need?

The discussion that we really need to have is whether there should be universality in the education sector or not. The intention is surely to achieve some measure of equality of opportunity but you don't foster this by equally funding those that are advantaged to those that are not.

In fact, a differentiation of educational provision on the basis of parental income is one of the most significant changes the Lib Dems have brought to government since the introduction of the Pupil Premium in 2011. Primary age children from impoverished homes now receive on average 29% more than their classmates and the (early and very limited) evidence is that it's having a substantial effect.

We need to have a much larger discussion though about where we go next with the Pupil Premium. We've brought in simplistic means-testing but the criteria for Pupil Premium eligibility are very limited and the cliff-edge is incredibly sharp with a 100% withdrawal rate. By means-testing the entire system we could far more efficiently distribute money that is currently given unnecessarily to the richest and ensure our education system provides far greater equality of opportunity.

I can't help but think that the abrupt announcement of universal free school meals was just a political gimmick because the Pupil Premium isn't bringing us the electoral success that we'd once hoped (due partially to awful branding but that's a different rant) and polling has shown it to be the most popular way to disseminate cash to those who are demographically likely to be Lib Dems as opposed to further rises in the income tax threshold.

My preferences

  • Increase choice: issue means-tested school vouchers to all parents
  • Increase freedom: allow state schools to set their own curriculum, pay and hiring policies
  • Increase supply: allow state schools to become independent and make profit