Discussing the so-called crumbly concrete crisis in UK schools and other public buildings, we asked in last week’s blog Fixing the roof asked about the level of sacrifice society was prepared to accept to provide a world-class education system for our children and young people. Bluff and bluster about a world-leading this and a world-beating that has enlivened many a political speech in recent years. Rhetoric rarely if ever matches reality. And that is the point. Investing in the future takes time and doesn’t come cheap. And with so many competing priorities – schools, hospitals, caring for the elderly, net zero, to name but four – there are no easy choices. Resources are finite. Let’s not pretend there are instant, pain-free miracle solutions.
Provision of free school meals is a good illustration of the problem. The issue was (briefly) in the news again at the start of the month, following the decision of the mayor of London to fund the universal rollout of free school meals in state primary schools, special schools and pupil referral units for this academic year at a cost of £135m, a decision backed by (among others) chef and longtime food campaigner Jamie Oliver:
Nourishing our kids with nutritious and delicious food at lunchtime is an investment in their future, boosts our economy and sets them up for a healthier and more productive life. Sadiq Khan has recognised this by giving all primary school children a free school meal and now we need politicians across all parties to put child health above politics and act now.Jamie Oliver, quoted here
We have discussed elsewhere some of the arguments for and against widening access to – or even moving to universal provision of – free school meals at a time of intense cost-of-living pressures, deepening poverty and an “all-pervasive” junk-food culture (the latter description is food campaigner Henry Dimbleby’s).
Opponents of such a step point to the cost and note that the government already does a great deal to support struggling families through its free school meals programme – around 1.9 million children were entitled to free school meals in England in 2022 (22.5% of the student population), plus 1.25 million children under the universal free school meal provision for infant schools – on top of a wide range of other benefits to support struggling families.
Some cite the more philosophical argument that government cannot do everything and should not try. Individuals and families – supported by the voluntary and charity sectors – must be prepared to do more to help themselves.
On the other hand, there are (according to the Food Foundation) 900,000 children in England living in poverty who are not currently eligible for free school meals because of the very restrictive threshold. In a recent survey nearly three in four (72%) school staff said that there had been an increase in “hygiene poverty” issues in their school in the last year. Dirty uniforms and PE kits, unwashed hair and unclean teeth were the most cited indicators of hygiene poverty. Children affected by hygiene poverty will almost certainly be hungry too.
Extending provision seems, morally, like the right thing to do. As we have written before, while we debate how best to address the problem, children go hungry – possibly millions of them.
But – to make the point again – it is not cheap. And the reality of any kind of universal scheme is that some of the money is spent on those who do not need it. The child of a millionaire gets a free meal every day too. The money targeted at free school meal provision cannot be spent elsewhere. Opportunity cost is a key concept in economics: the (net) benefits you give up by not choosing the next best alternative.
To repeat: there are no easy choices – about free school meals or indeed anything else to do with spending on public goods. Assuming for the sake of argument that the only viable way to dramatically improve education is by increasing public investment in it (a proposition which of course not everyone would agree with), the money has to come – in the short to medium term at the very least – from either cutting spending elsewhere, increasing borrowing or increasing taxation. Few mainstream politicians like to talk about any of those choices. To do so, it is widely assumed, is to invite electoral annihilation.
In our blog Shifting the Overton window we highlighted the importance of resetting the terms of debate, a prerequisite for any successful change of approach or strategy. The Overton window – a concept used in political science – refers to the range of policies voters will find acceptable. A policy that is outside the Overton window will be unacceptable to the mainstream voting public. It may be seen as extreme or simply as impossible to achieve.
We referred to the argument advanced by the political commentator Sonia Sodha about government spending and borrowing. Sodha picked up on the well-worn metaphor (especially on the political right) of the maxed-out credit card. It is well worn for a reason – it seems to make sense. It chimes with our everyday experience of having to carefully control what we spend because we only have a limited pot of money. Common sense tells us that it is a foolish fantasy – worse, a betrayal – to think that we can keep borrowing and borrowing with abandon. The inevitable result is crippling debts, unaffordable interest payments and a next generation saddled with the consequences of our profligacy.
Sodha invites us to change the metaphor. Think of government spending not as partying on the credit card but as taking out a mortgage. It is also something that is part of the everyday experience of millions of people, a commitment that we see not as profligate and irresponsible but as a sensible long-term investment for the future.
In the context of the crumbly concrete crisis, the head of the National Audit Office Gareth Davies talked about the importance of “unflashy but essential” stuff like maintenance of buildings and provision of up-to-date technology. Our children are our human capital of the future. It is time to invest adequately in them too. It is time to begin shifting the Overton window.
Image at the head of this article by Michal Jarmoluk from Pixabay.