Free school meals can help power the minds of the next generation of workers in Brexit Britain, writes NPF member

With Brexit now a reality, the short-sightedness and idiocy of the Tory government in continuing to ignore underfunding in schools is unforgivable. It is setting our country up for future failure.

There has been an overwhelming catalogue of education policy failures and it is a travesty that in opposition we have been unable to land more blows. Funding cuts are damaging education provision: driving up class sizes, reducing the number of teaching assistants, ending any “curriculum enrichment” that is not self-financing, increasing the number of unqualified teachers and reducing the curriculum options available.

The school census last year showed 17,780 state secondary school children being taught in classes with 36 or more pupils. This is an increase of 11,673 from 2011 and the highest number for a decade.

Most people adhere to the economic argument for education which states that more educated countries prosper financially. Schultz and Hanushek collated evidence to prove that: “Over the past half century, countries with higher maths and science skills have grown faster than those with lower skills populations…what stands out is that all the countries follow a nearly straight line that slopes upwards – as scores rise so does economic growth.” If you accept the economic argument for education then the consequences of underfunding education must be accepted too.

Politicians care so much about the ranking of their country’s education system because they believe we need to compete in the “global race”. As schools minister, Tory MP Liz Truss delivered a speech called “the global education race” in January 2014 and stated that, “in a country like ours, in a globalised economy, good jobs follow good skills. What’s more, we already know that highly skilled people are in greater demand in this country than elsewhere… All the evidence suggests that ultimately, what determines a country’s ability to grow and prosper is a combination of flexible labour markets and good education. Countries that want to become great have learned that economic dominance is predicated upon the creation of a system of high-quality education.”

The Tories have often lambasted our school system because they fear the consequences of being globally uncompetitive. After Brexit life will be much tougher. We will have to stand alone in the global race, so where are the justifications for damaging our ability to compete?

Even if you dismiss the economic argument for education, rising populism makes the need for a more informed population, especially when they are growing fears around fake news and attempts to manipulate elections.

Surely we need to invest in creating informed citizens who will not believe everything they read nor obey every instruction without question? The Tories should be less concerned about the cost of education and more concerned about the cost of ignorance.

As a member of the Labour Party’s national policy forum (NPF) for early years education and skills I will argue that if we want to make Brexit work then we must prioritise investment in schools. The Tories argue that after Brexit the UK can prosper on its own so it is ludicrous that they fail to acknowledge the long-term damage of under-investment in our schools.

Jeremy Corbyn has promised that: “Only a Labour government, determined to reshape the economy so that it works for all, in every part of the country, can make Brexit work for Britain”. So we must expose the long-term Tory damage, for not just our schools but our country. Only with increased funding for schools will have a greater chance of ensuring that every child can matter again.

As a proud resident of Hull, I was delighted with Corbyn’s vow that all primary children would receive a free school meal under a Labour government – funded by introducing VAT on private school fees.

In 2004, Hull council launched “Eat Well Do Well” which offered free schools meals to all children. Despite Hull University proving the success of this policy it was scrapped by the following Liberal Democrat administration.

In January 2007 the three Hull Labour MPs, Diana Johnson, Alan Johnson and John Prescott launched a petition to save free school meals in Hull while charity the Child Poverty Action Group said: “The pilot [in Hull] has already been a huge success, with take-up more than doubling, more children eating healthier meals and an increase in pupils’ readiness to learn.”

Universal free school meals benefit everyone: having healthier children will reduce costs in the NHS while help children to learn will improve school results.

Similarly, proposals for a national education service should be celebrated. Education is a public good. To illustrate this, in 2010, Stephen Machin, Olivier Marie and Sunčica Vujić  proved that “improving education can yield significant social benefits and can be a key policy tool in the drive to reduce crime.”

In my opinion, the only genuine criticism for not supporting free school meals and free education for all is questions over funding. And the only positive that I can see from Brexit is the indisputable need for increased education funding which will enable future Labour governments to make a difference.

Emma Hardy is a CLP representative on the NPF and deputy general secretary of the Socialist Education Association. She is a former infant school teacher and lives in the Hull West and Hessle constituency.

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