- Created: Sunday, 20 October 2013 07:25
Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 235 October/November 2013
‘The future of the Empire, the triumph of social progress and the freedom of the British race depend not so much upon the strengthening of the Army as upon fortifying the children of the State for the battle of life.’ House of Commons debate on free school meals, 1905
Following the introduction of compulsory elementary education in Britain in 1870, school attendance was very low in impoverished areas. Those reformers who wanted a modern state system to match Britain’s industrial and military rival Germany united with progressive movements concerned with child poverty to demand the provision of a free hot school lunch to encourage poor pupils to attend. The 1906 Act empowered local authorities to spend money out of the rates to feed needy children.
The recent announcement by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg that all pupils aged 4 to 7 years will be entitled to free school meals is to be welcomed. It has been shown repeatedly since 1906 that well-fed children are happier and healthier children. A number of local authorities, like Southwark in south east London, already provide a free lunch for primary pupils.
Does this privatising government, the moralising enemy of the poor, have a caring side to it? Well, as Lenin said, ‘nobody has yet invented a sincerometer’ – but we can be sure that the government has worked out that the advantages of extending free school meals will outweigh the costs of the £600 million annual spend.
First, school meals are outsourced to private companies and the new payments will be up for tender by the big catering companies who are friends of the government. Let us not forget that the winning contract will be the cheapest contract, not necessarily the best food. Next, parents pay on average £400 per year per child for school lunches, and as the government knows well, this is a big financial burden on an increasing number of families as austerity continues to deepen. Packed lunches are the preferred cheaper, but not always better, option. Finally, eligibility for free school meals is recognised as a measure of poverty. The number of children registered for free school meals triggers additional funding for each school. Currently this ‘pupil premium’ is worth £900 a year for each child but this is planned to rise to £1,300 a year. The extra funding is provided to buy in school lunches and the additional resources and teaching support for schools with disadvantaged children. The average number of children eligible for free meals in England and Wales is 17% but there are schools where the figure is 62%. This poverty indicator will be abolished at a stroke for children under the age of seven next year, which is convenient for government propaganda that the economy is on the mend.
In fact, the gap between the number of children living in poverty in the UK (3.5 million today and rising) and the numbers receiving free school meals has always been enormous. It is estimated that 6 out of every 10 children living in poverty do not receive school meals because only parents in receipt of Income Support or receiving one of a narrow range of benefits linked to an income of less than £16,160 a year are eligible. Parents in low-paid jobs cannot apply for free school meals simply on the basis of income. How different it is in Sweden where all pupils have free school meals up to the age of 17. This is one part of Sweden’s education system that the government does not want to copy.
What happened in Sweden?
As soon as he became Education Secretary Michael Gove demonstrated his intentions for the UK’s education system by pointing to the example of Sweden which opened up its state education system to ‘for-profit’ schooling in the 1990s. Today more than a third of upper secondary schools and a sixth of primary schools are run by private operators with public finances. In May 2013 one of Sweden’s biggest school businesses, JB Education, owned by the Danish private equity firm Axcel, went bankrupt. ‘The school system has developed into the Wild West’, said opposition leader Stefan Lofven, as schools are threatened with closure.
Despite this evidence that capitalism is concerned with profit not pupils, Gove continues to attack state education and turn many more schools into state-funded ‘independent’ academies and free schools with a view to introducing ‘for profit’ education. The Department for Education employs ‘brokers’ who are consultants looking for ‘sponsors’ from private companies, religious foundations or charitable organisations who will be prepared to be a front for schools taken out of the control of local authorities. This splitting up of the state system is strategic preparation for future ‘for profit’ schooling. Already many education functions are privatised. Many functions of the Ofsted Inspectorate are outsourced to Serco, the Tribal Group and CfBT. Teacher training, school meals, IT services, cleaning services, building and repairs and examinations are all run by private companies for profit. A4e, the ‘into work’ training company responsible for millions of pounds of government contracts despite being exposed for corruption and fraud, was recently found guilty of racial discrimination.
The financially incompetent Mr Gove
Michael Gove has said that families using food banks might be to blame for their predicament, because they ‘are not best able to manage their finances’. He can talk! Gove’s Department for Education has overspent £1 billion on his academies and free school programme. It is easy to see how this financial incompetence has happened. The ‘brokers’ he employs have cost £8.7 million in the last three years and are reported to be on day rates of up to £1,000 while, in the words of The Children’s Society, ‘in Britain today, many families are still being forced to make harsh choices between putting food on the table or buying new shoes for school.’