Universally Unacclaimed: The Great VAT Debate 

Posted on April 7, 2017

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The other night I tweeted out the following story, assuming that it would be a slam dunk with the twitterati, or at least the vast majority of them. 

I mean, seriously, who on my timeline was going to dislike the idea of applying VAT to private education fees (I hadn’t even realised that they were VAT-free) and then utilising that money to extend the existing Universal Infant Free School Meal (UIFSM) programme to all junior school children?

The answer, I quickly found out, was pretty much everyone who responded to my tweets!  Talk about cognitive dissonance!  This was a handy reminder that twitter isn’t always the echo chamber some criticise it for being. For two consecutive nights I have been madly tweeting, full of passion, in response to the passion-filled tweets of others. And, if I’m to be honest with all of them, I still don’t get it. I still don’t understand why anyone in education would be so vehemently opposed to using VAT on private school fees to feed children in state primary schools. 

This post is to summarise the range of tweets I’ve had into their core arguments. The first half is about arguments against applying VAT to private education. The second half is about arguments against using the windfall to fund universal free school meals for primary children. The intention is to counter each of those arguments unbound by 140 characters to see if they still make sense to me and, I suppose, to see if they persuade anyone else to what seems to me to be obvious. 

AGAINST VAT ON PRIVATE EDUCATION

There were three main arguments against applying VAT to private education. 

1. The 20% increase in fees will hit parents struggling to pay fees 

A couple of people who gave this argument were paying fees for their children, and I’m not unsympathetic to them as individuals. But my substantive argument through all of this is that private education is a non-essential service, a luxury if you will, and therefore should be subject to VAT. 

Given the massive hikes in independent school fees in recent years (or even decades – see below), my feeling is that private schools should be able to absorb most or all of the additional costs rather than pass them on to families. 

Someone challenged me on these charts so I suggested that they might find ones that show independent schools haven’t raised prices way above inflation for years. They haven’t got back to me yet. 

Even if parents of privately educated children don’t have the costs of VAT passed on to them by the schools (see next point) then I’m afraid that it will be up to them to find the additional costs. Ultimately, though, it shouldn’t be the state that subsidises private education and, with historic VAT exemption, that is exactly what has been happening. 

2. Independent schools cannot afford to absorb the costs or loss of children and so will go out of business. 

One tweet I received said that this policy was Trumpian, comparing it to the building of the wall and charging it to the Mexicans. Needless to say, I didn’t reply. 

More sensible tweets suggested that this would hit struggling private schools hard, particularly those away from the big cities or those with high reputations. There was concern that many may not be going concerns after this additional tax. I’m not unsympathetic to the idea that reduced funding and additional overheads lead to hard choices. In fact, I have huge empathy with it because it is exactly the situation I face as a secondary school Headteacher. My guessing is that there is less fat to cut at my current school before we hit muscle than there is at many (perhaps all) independent schools.  But then I’m fortunate in only having to break even, rather than make a profit, in my budget. 

A couple of times it was suggested to me that private schools facing a budget squeeze may well choose to roll back on bursaries. If that is the case then we will have a clear answer about the importance of widening participation to those schools, but there will also be £1.5 billion more going into the state sector. Interestingly, there were times when “class warfare” was raised in tweets two nights ago, but I think that the writer intended it with regard to the Labour Party. 

3. Due to points 1 and 2 there will be a sudden and massive influx into state schools of formerly private school children, thus rendering the proposal more costly than the status quo. 

Apparently, according to more tweeters than I could count, there will be a veritable swamping of the state school sector by refugee children from the private sector that will decrease the VAT take from independent schools (a delicious irony to some of them) and increase the costs of educating children in already overcrowded comprehensives which already don’t have enough teachers, thus making the whole system even worse and taking us all to hell in a handcart. 

I seem to remember the same sort of comments about the impact of the minimum and living wages, about the effect of a vote for leave, about the effect of a vote for remain, and about so many other things. 

I think that it’s a fairly good bet that most private schools will be able to manage, as will most parents who send their children to private schools. Somewhere, in the space between them, their desire to remain in business and their desire to pass on advantage to their children will mean that the costs will be absorbed and that the status quo will largely be maintained. Even if the provision in the average independent school isn’t quite what it used to be, it will no doubt still be substantially better than the provision in the average state school.

AGAINST UNIVERSAL FREE SCHOOL MEALS

Whilst there were a number arguing against VAT on private education, the vast majority of responses I have fielded have been around the second part of the equation. And it’s this opposition to UFSM that has baffled me the most, not so much in the alternative arguments themselves but in the absolute insistence that UFSM is the wrong answer. 

1. The ‘universal’ dimension is wrong and free school meals should be better targeted. 

I felt a lot of sympathy for staff from infant schools who have struggled with the roll out of UIFSM when they suggested the problems ahead with extension. But a big difference with this policy is that it is costed and, according to analysts, with some headroom in it, whereas Clegg’s flagship UIFSM was, by all accounts, done on a combination of a fag packet and a wing and a prayer. Ultimately, though, I don’t believe that crappy logistics the first time around should derail a significant policy such as this. Instead they should make us more determined to get the logistics right. 

Others suggested that we should be using the extra money to ensure existing FSM is taken up by better automation of eligibility, or extending provision for the poorest to include breakfast and holiday meals, or by extending eligibility by raising the poverty threshold for FSM. Alongside this, many were suggesting that to feed the children of non-FSM or non-poor families is wasteful. 

There’s lots here that I get. I was a free school meal kid all the way through my education and I’ve only worked at schools with very high FSM rates. But what I see daily are kids who are eligible but whose families don’t take it up, kids who are not eligible but whose families clearly struggle to make ends meet after housing costs come out of their monthly budget, kids who are not eligible who spend the cash they are given on crap on the way to school and never have a decent meal all week. 

More worrying is what I don’t see. I don’t see the inside of every packed lunch box and its nutritional content. I don’t see the families who have nothing to eat at home because all their money goes into providing their kids with lunch money. And I don’t see  how I can see all of those things unless I have the chance to feed them all and can implement an expectation that all will eat a balanced diet every day. Only a universal benefit like this will do that. 

In my last post, on our Community Heartbeat Initiative, I included data from the London Poverty Profile such as this. 

The “gig economy” and “zero hours contracts” are ensuring that work pays less well these days and, crucially, is less secure than ever before. Alongside this, rents are continuing to skyrocket, with landlord possessions also on the increase, whilst the benefit cap functions more and more like a guillotine. 

All of this will make means testing for FSM more and more challenging, less stable and more prone to leaving those who are eligible caught in the system waiting for that to come through, however well automated that system is. Universal FSM is the only solution that ensures all children who need it, including the non-poor who are poorly looked after, get fed and fed well, and without any need to means test it removes a divisive and costly process around eligibility. 

2. There are other priorities within education which need the money. 

Absolutely true. There are many, many things that I would like to spend this money on within education. Recruitment, yes. Improved funding for schools, yes. Curriculum materials, yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes.  But, when it comes down to it, I don’t think that this is particularly an education policy. To me it feels much more like an economic policy in the changes to VAT, like a social policy in terms of the universal free school meal and, perhaps, a public health policy in its proposed impact. It is only an education policy insofar as the feeding will be done at schools and in that it ought to have a beneficial impact on achievement. 

At times, and perhaps for the first times, I felt a little divorced from the twitter educational community: a little ashamed that a policy so widely and well accepted by so many others in society was being reduced down to what schools might get out of it. Don’t get me wrong, schools need much more and I will lobby like hell for it, including via this blog. But, as this cartoon about the Beveridge Report that led to the founding of the Welfare State shows, the giant of ‘Want’ needs to be slain before the giant of ‘Ignorance’ can be fought. 


Schools have taken a hit in austerity Britain, but the movement of debt from the state to households has been startling. The complaints of schools about funding a 1% pay rise for staff in straitened times doesn’t come close to the challenges that a family on the breadline faces by having costs rise faster than their measly 1% pay rise. We need to understand the challenges of our families first and the challenges of our schools second. 

Similarly, a lot of criticisms have been made about the lack of convincing evidence that UIFSM has been a success. On a number of occasions I have asked these tweeters what they would seek to measure, how they would seek to measure it, how they would remove other variables and how long this piece of research would last. I’ve had no response, only the assertion that £1billion is a lot to spend without evidence. 

The fact is that there is evidence, just not enough either way to convincingly say it is a success at raising performance of students in education. Perhaps, but for me this is (as I’ve said earlier) not primarily an education policy. Thus, for me, the only things to evidence are (i) do more kids get fed, (ii) do more kids get fed more healthily, and (iii) what are the other benefits that follow from this? The only other thing I believe needs to happen in this research is for it to be done longitudinally so that we can measure the impacts over time as universal school meals become the norm. 

3. Children are the responsibility of their parents, not of schools or the state. 

With regards to this, someone even sent me this image:


I sent them, in return and slightly snarkily, this:


But we made it up and, despite having never tweeted before, we ended up on good terms (given that I sent them a pic of Margaret Thatcher I think I did best out of that).

They weren’t the only person to rattle my cage over the past two days. On more than a few occasions I’ve both sent and received tweets that were meant to be a little spikey in nature. Most of them revolved around this issue of whether or not it is the job of parents to feed their children, or whether schools have a role to play in that. The answer, as ever, lies in between but I can’t accept, as some have argued, that because we live in an affluent society in which nutritional guidelines are well understood, that universal free school meals are an example of the ‘Nanny State’ at work. Instead I see it much more as an example of the Welfare State (much-maligned down the years but increasingly missed as it is stripped away in front of us). 

I understand that some baulk at the idea of feeding kids from well-to-do families (including their own for some of my interlocutors), but how many of us would think twice about universal healthcare via the NHS and universal prescriptions, eye tests and dental check-ups for kids?  During the course of the debate, a Swedish teacher intervened to say that universal free school meals had been in place since the 1950s and that it was considered as normal as we consider all of the things I have just mentioned.

Conclusion

I’m hopeful for the future, in spite of all the crap we see around us at the second half of a decade pockmarked by the damage caused by austerity. Indeed, someone supporting me during this great debate called me an ‘idealist’ where others were being ‘pragmatic’: perhaps a touch of a backhanded compliment there!  I’m hopeful that the mood music around ‘benefit scroungers’, the ‘undeserving poor’ and even the more positive ‘just about managing’ families will be replaced by a more positive tune that harks back to the attempts of post-war Britain to provide an adequate safety net for all of its citizen through the introduction of a raft of universal benefits. 

Make no bones about it, the darkest decades of our history since industrialisation have been ones in which means testing has been used as a tool to select who receives and who doesn’t. This policy, to add a tax that should always have been there to private education, is genuinely redistributive. In passing that windfall on to all children, regardless of background, is genuinely comprehensive with no cliff edges for students to fall off (until secondary, and my only real problem with this policy is that it doesn’t extend to secondary, yet). Personally, I think it is the boldest, most progressive policy proposal of recent years, possibly for decades since the advent of neoliberal ideology. And I love it. My only fear is that, with the party I love in such disarray, I will never get to see it enacted. 

Or maybe, just maybe, this is the start of a turning tide…?

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