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6 April 2017

Labour’s free school meals policy makes the grade

The pledge to support all primary school children has some downsides but is at least satisfactory.

By Stephen Bush

It’s just like having Ed Miliband back! It’s a quiet day as far as government announcements are concerned, and Jeremy Corbyn has stepped up with a policy of his own, designed to win friends and headlines.

The policy? Universal free school meals for all primary school pupils, paid for by ending the VAT-free status of private school fees.

As far as good opposition policy goes it ticks a lot of boxes: it will irritate the private school lobby so it may provoke a fight, meaning there’s a half-decent chance that ordinary voters may hear about it. It has the support of at least one high-profile Conservative in the shape of Michael Gove, giving Labour a measure of cover on the right. It’s a bung for middle-class voters and no-one ever got elected without doing a bit of that. And as applications to private education has been shown to be largely inelastic to price increases, the revenue raise won’t kill the golden goose.

Here are the downsides. The VAT change has  the same problem as the national insurance rise (peace be upon it): a lot of columnists and pundits will feel it. Just as with the NICs  change it will be the source of noises off for some time to come. The main beneficiaries of the scheme will be children whose parents can afford it, and some people will suggest the money would better be used protecting teaching assistants from redundancy or restoring breakfast clubs for children from the lowest-paid and most-chaotic households. (But it’s worth noting that the threshold for paying free school meals is £16,190. It’s not like non-eligibility is the same as being wealthy)

There’s also the wonkish but important question of what will replace free school meals status as an indicator of educational outcomes, how much value schools are adding, and to measure of social mobility. FSM is used right up until people graduate from higher education as a measure of how the most-disadvantaged are progressing, so Labour will need to come up with an alternate benchmark.

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But on the whole, a policy that is satisfactory, but not outstanding.