Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Sharing Lunch

The debate over Labour's proposal to introduce free state school meals and pay for it by charging VAT on private school fees has provided a fine example of Alfred Hirschman's rhetoric of reaction. Opponents have talked of perversity (you're subsiding well-off families), futility (it won't raise standards), and jeopardy (some private schools will fold, putting more pressure on the state system). This particular trifecta has put futility out in front, with much chuntering about inconclusive data linking nutrition with learning, showing how the concept of "evidence-based policy-making" has evolved over the last twenty years from at least the pretence of an open mind in the service of reform to the setting of a high bar in the service of conservatism. When someone says "We need better evidence", what they usually mean is "I don't like where your evidence leads", rather than "This is risky - let's get more data to be on the safe side". Unless you believe that a generation of kids might be damaged by over-exposure to fresh fruit, the empirically sound response to Labour's proposal should be "Let's give it a try and see what happens". And unless you believe that "just about managing" families are those scrimping to afford school fees rather than packed lunches, then the political response should be equally supportive.

Since the 1990s, what we might call the rhetoric of liberalism has struggled with the cognitive dissonance of a commitment to both "what works" and "what I believe", with the former becoming increasingly subservient to the latter. This has encouraged a public cynicism that runs like a golden thread from 2002's sexed-up WMD dossier to 2016's EU referendum "project fear". Liberals bemoan the rejection of experts as evidence of a new dark age of anger and irrationality, ignoring the possibility that it reflects a healthy scepticism about the motivations of politicians and their media supporters. This dissonance is most obvious in the field of foreign affairs, where the accumulated evidence of the folly of liberal interventionism (both financial and military) is never allowed to temper the demand for robust action, leading to the near-automatic liberal embrace of auto-da-fés like Trump's recent airstrike in Syria. The dissonance has gradually seeped into domestic affairs as belief-led schemes like welfare reform and austerity have persistently failed to deliver their promised results. Education and health have been the last holdouts against this trend, reflecting their early embrace of targets and measurement in the 90s, but even here the idea that policy should be evidence-led has taken a battering in the face of free schools and the Lansley reforms.

A worry about what works hasn't hindered the government's plan to expand grammar schools, which is convenient given that the evidence suggests they lead to an aggregate worsening of results. I don't recall many Tories fretting about this, or the negative effects that an expansion of grammars might have on the private school sector, let alone worrying that public money was being diverted to the needs of a small minority of mostly middle-class families. The argument that free school meals for all would be "a poor use of public money" takes some nerve given that the zero-VAT-rating of private school fees is already as much of a public subsidy as the zero-rating of food. If we were to rank different items of public expenditure (or subsidy) by their perceived social value then I suspect that feeding kids in the middle of the school day regardless of their home circumstances would be nearer the top of the list than the bottom, particularly when the competition includes HS2 and inheritance tax relief. Meanwhile, Boris Johnson reckons a new royal yacht would command "overwhelming support".

The difficulty of sustaining a principled case against the combination of children and nutrition was made all too clear by Theresa May's decision to ignore the actual proposal and simply claim that Labour would "bankrupt Britain", presumably through the over-production of tuna pasta bakes. With other Tories no less evasive, this obliged the media to turn to centrists and policy-wonks for a counter-argument. Beyond the chin-stroking and calls for really, really conclusive evidence, this boiled down to framing the proposal as proof of Labour's foolishness (i.e. at a time when the party should be visiting condign punishment on Ken Livingstone's testicles) or neediness (which could perhaps be read as guilt over media spitefulness towards Corbyn). What was interesting about these two broad responses - May's conservative contempt and the centrists' liberal condescension - was that both avoided any mention of community or national interest, which was traditionally the starting point for discussions about education policy. This reflects the contemporary tendency to divide society into irreconcilable and mutually-suspicious blocs, which long-predates the trauma of the EU referendum. In the field of education, this sheep and goats approach has given rise not only to the return of overt selection and manic discipline but even "lunch isolation".

Schools are institutions for socialisation but they also serve as paradigms for a desired social organisation. They are polemical as well as pedagogic. This mixes both an objective anticipation of society's future needs ("everyone must learn to code") and a subjective preference for cultural norms ("school uniforms instil discipline"). As such, there is inevitably a tension between conservative and progressive forces, but it is one in which the balance of power reflects wider social anxieties. The most persistent concern over the course of the last 150 years, since the introduction of compulsory secondary schooling, has been the physical and cognitive fitness of the working class. This reflected evolving assumptions about the future of work, from the need for dextrous industrial workers and soldiers a century ago to the need for literate and numerate office workers today. Policy debates have centred on accommodating privilege within a framework of increasing state and business demand for universal standards. What is significant about the free school meals debate is the rejection of universalism by centrists who in previous decades would have been among its leading advocates.

Cheerleaders for private education may laud the quality of the teaching or a school's flexibility to meet their child's special needs, but their attitude is fundamentally instrumental. They expect to get a social and economic advantage in return for their money. Traditionally, this meant access to university and then either the professions or the executive washroom. As the knowledge economy has given way to the robot apocalypse in popular speculation, many parents now see private schooling and its privileged access to the leading universities as a safeguard in a world of dwindling jobs. In other words, they are betting on a future in which competition and ranking gives way to a brutal cut: you're either in or you're out. The signs of this have been obvious for years, from the middle-class demand that the state subsidise free schools to the evolution of the intern trap. What matters is not individual talent but membership of a privileged group. It should hardly come as a surprise that this has led to nostalgia for older forms of education that embody segregation, from antique uniform styles to grammar schools.

While I think that free school meals for all is a sensible initiative, and adding VAT to private school fees is a moral obligation, I think that Labour might also consider a complementary proposal that combines both universalism and means-testing, if only to wind up centrists. My cunning plan would be to abolish tuition fees and maintenance loans for tertiary education and recoup the cost by setting the state pension age for those with degrees as the default + 5. In effect a deferred working lifetime graduate tax. Tuition fees are currently £9,250 per annum while a maximum maintenance loan for a student away from home and outside London is £8,430. Over 3 years, this would amount to £27,750 and £25,290 respectively, or a grand total of £53,040. Five years of state pension payments is £40,469 (£155.65 per week), while 5 years of NICs for an annual salary of £30,000 is £13,000 (at £50 a week), giving a total revenue to the state of £53,469, which means the proposal pays for itself (I've based the typical graduate salary on a lifetime earnings premium of £100,000 over a UK median salary of £27,600).

These figures are a rough estimate (the earnings premium might shrink further in future plus I'm not taking into account early retirement, incapacity or extra income tax receipts) but the principle is sound, the mechanism transparent (a straight quid pro quo of pension years for education), and it appeals to natural justice (given that most of us distinguish between hard graft and watching Countdown). I reckon 5 years is fair because of differentials in longevity (the better-off, which correlates with degree-educated, tend to live 5 years longer than the less well-off) and the fact that the difference in years of education today for most of those approaching the state pension age includes 2 years in the 6th form (the school leaving age only went up to 18 in 2015). You could argue the differential should be reduced in the future to 3 years, but this won't need to happen before 2064, by which time the state pension age could be well north of 70 and the singularity may have made everybody redundant anyway.

Given that the proposal doesn't seek to change existing levels of university participation, it would be difficult to level a charge of futility beyond a possible future funding gap. This could come about if tuition fees rose to much higher levels, pension values fell significantly, or those pesky robots took all the jobs and abolished NICs. Opponents pushing the possibility of any of these scenarios would open up a much wider argument than the best mechanism for a graduate tax. The most likely perversity would be for the young to turn away from university if they fear the certainty of a delayed state pension more than the possibility of a large lifetime earnings premium. Again, if this were to happen, opponents would have to address the wider issue of a decline in the earnings premium. Some students might deliberately fail their final exams, but this seems unlikely given that the objective for most is the token of a degree. The scheme would jeopardise neither the university sector nor the state pension. Where the proposal might be vulnerable is that it divides society into two groups, graduates and non-graduates, though that is hardly novel. Given the current vogue for more pernicious dichotomies such as "somewheres" and "anywheres", this seems a forgivable flaw.


  1. Herbie Kills Children12 April 2017 at 18:55

    Great article.

    “This mixes both an objective anticipation of society's future needs ("everyone must learn to code")”

    Interesting idea, but I fail to understand how everyone will need to code in the same way that everyone needs to be able to count (unless you have been watching too much Sci-Fi). I can imagine that schools will broaden its computer teaching but in reality everyone must learn to code is as meaningful to society’s future needs as everyone must learn how the First World War started. In fact if you ask me forget about coding, just improve the teaching of maths and the coding will take care of itself! But hopefully the advance the computing technology will allow Humans to stop doing useless shit like coding, or accounting and concentrate on the really important stuff, like ensuring the garden looks tidy and the beer is chilled and the patient is given dignity!

    But I am being facetious!

    1. I don't go along with the idea of that everyone needs to learn how to code. I was quoting that as a current example of the instrumental approach to education design, which is often misguided when not simply captured by business interests.

      I expand on my scepticism here (from 2014) and here (from 2012).

    2. Herbie Kills Children14 April 2017 at 07:56

      I suspected you didn't go along with it, which is why I said I was being facetious!

      I guess my trigger warning didn't work!

  2. Ben Philliskirk12 April 2017 at 19:25

    I suspect that your 'cunning plan' shows that you have been reading Chris Dillow too much. Apart from the difficulty in selling such a scheme to the public, my immediate objection is that it assumes that university is/should be a conduit for individual career/earnings/status boosting, and that anyone who is not certain to 'succeed' financially from a university education should be deterred from applying.

    I enjoyed my time at university and feel I have benefitted in a non-financial sense. I was lucky enough to be one of the final intakes to get my fees paid and receive a grant, but even if I had gone to uni under the present arrangements I would be approaching 39 without having paid a penny back for the cost of my BA. So unfortunately even Tory fee policy is a lesser evil for me compared to your cunning plan. Back to the drawing board please!

    1. I think I may need to start inserting trigger warnings for humour.

      I don't really expect such a cunning plan to be taken up, not least because it starkly identifies winners and losers, something that politicians are reluctant to do unless the latter are already demonised and preferably disempowered, like the poor. My purpose was to craft a plan that highlighted the hypocrisy of means-testing. There are two aspects to this.

      First, if middle-class families don't need free school meals because they can afford to pay, then by the same logic they don't need state pensions. My suggestion isn't that they lose the state pension altogether but that they surrender 5 years. Given variable longevity, they'd probably still get the same total cash sum as a non-graduate. I suspect most would still retire "early", simply front-loading their private pension until the state one kicked in.

      Second, it is reasonable that people who got a job at 16 and did physically-demanding work that degraded their health deserve earlier retirement, particularly as they are likely to enjoy fewer pensioned years due to relative longevity. The way this proposal would be sold is not "default + 5 for graduates" but "default - 5 for non-graduates". In other words, a means-tested benefit.

      I take your point about the advantage of the current student loans scheme meaning that graduates who don't get an earnings premium aren't then penalised, but this could be factored into my cunning plan by gearing the number of years surrendered to lifetime tax paid. In other words, instead of a division between grads and non-grads, give a discount on the SPA for low tax contributions (i.e. low earners).

      This would break the link with education (a millionaire non-grad would have a later SPA), so you could argue that we should keep the current scheme of loans and generous write-offs, but I would advocate abolishing fees precisely for the reason you highlight: that university should be seen as a social good rather than a economic investment.

  3. "What is significant about the free school meals debate is the rejection of universalism by centrists who in previous decades would have been among its leading advocates."

    This is indeed a sea-change. I wonder if it comes from the wholesale conversion of centrists to both neo-liberal economic consensus and the McKinsey train. Mandatory tight finances and the obsession with quantifying and targeting leads inexorably to the rationing of state money and associated means-testing.

    1. Austerity is part of it, but claims of unaffordability have previously coexisted with universalism (e.g. prescription charges), and the sums involved in school dinners aren't that great. There is something else at work here to do with the division of society.

      Though this has been made acute lately with the leave/remain war, it seems to me to start in the 90s with the acceptance that the fissures opened by Thatcher would not be closed. Since then we've seen various attempts to construct antagonisms, from striver/skiver to native/migrant, when the real division is between those who believe that society exists and those who don't.

      Universalism has become an acid test for this.

    2. So, essentially, universalism stopped when the Third Way was adopted. Accepting the Thatcherite settlement and deciding that finessing at the margin was all that was possible.

    3. Pretty much. The Third Way appeared inclusive - a bit of left, a bit of right - but it was actually exclusive, requiring one enemy after another to justify its authoritarian turn.

  4. It encapsulates what I find so utterly disillusioning about many of our supposedly ‘sensible’ centre-leftists: the ease with which they have aligned themselves with arch reactionaries & simpering liberals against the unseemly ferocity that is *intake of breath* Jeremy Corbyn. I mean, even by their own questionable scaling one would think they would admit to having more in common with politicians of the democratic left than anyone else, but no, apparently they really are left to wonder whether it is worth sacrificing a de facto subsidy to the private schooling sector just to feed a few million miserable kids...