Education and the Welfare System

Michael Gove speaking at the Conservative Part...
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Michael Gove – Turning State Education into a Welfare Benefit for the Poor

Is free education welfare? Traditionally, we have not believed so in Britain, and have seen free education as something that should be provided to all regardless of income.

However, the Coalition government has taken another step towards means testing free state education.

Back in April, the “pupil premium” came into effect. That was foisted on the Coalition by the Liberal Democrats, and gives schools an additional £430 per pupil who is on free school meals.

And now, the government is proposing that Academies and the new Free Schools should be allowed to discriminate in their application procedures in favour of children who get free school meals.

What all this means is that schools will have a strong financial incentive to choose to take pupils from poorer families.

Clearly, none of this will matter in the least with under-subscribed schools. Anyone who wants to go to those schools will continue to get in. But with over-subscribed schools, their admissions policies will start to favour poorer families.

We will therefore move closer to a situation in which the only state schools that are open to middle class families are the state schools that are rubbish. They will have a choice between sending their kids to a bad school, or sending them to a private school.

This is all part of a general move to take state provision away from the middle classes. (Other examples are the removal of child benefit for higher rate taxpayers, the severe cutbacks to tax credits for middle income people, the new student loans system and the increased means testing that will be included in the replacement for the Education Maintenance Allowance.)

Of course, the Tories have been in favour of means testing for many years. Even under Margaret Thatcher, they used to talk about opportunities to increase it. They tackle it from the middle class side, talking about how best to take benefits away from the middle classes. (They call it “targetting help on those who need it”.)

Labour too are in favour of means testing, but they talk about it from the working class side. They talk about how best to provide new or increased benefits to the poor. (They call it “helping the most vulnerable”.)

All this is very worthy, no doubt, but it already has a severe downside – it reduces the incentives to work hard, to get ahead and to earn the money to support your family.

The situation is now so extreme that an even darker side of it will soon emerge. There is a danger that the middle classes will withdraw their consent to the whole welfare system. What that means in practice is not revolution and blood on the streets. It just means that the middle classes will stop seeing taxes as something unpleasant that it is their duty to pay. Instead they will start seeing them as state-sponsored theft.

And if they see taxes as state-sponsored theft, they will stop paying their taxes. We will go down the road already trodden by countries like Greece and Italy, with huge black economies.

Everyone seems to say that Michael Gove is an education expert, a thinker and somebody who understands the way forward for the education system. I have to say I can’t see it.

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