School Wars: The Battle for Britain's Education
Melissa Benn, 2011
233pp., £12.99 (paperback), ISBN13: 978-1-84467-736-8
Review by Derek Gillard
© copyright Derek Gillard 2012
Melissa Benn's book has two main themes. First, she is concerned that the public discourse about education led by politicians and the media - that there is a crisis which is the fault of schools and local authorities - does not accord with the experience of most parents, who value and support the work of their local schools. And second, she argues that, while politicians of both right and left have sought to undermine the state system of education for the past thirty years, the current government's policies risk destroying it altogether.
The book begins with an introduction in which Benn describes her own experience of sending her daughters to local schools. The rest of the book is organised in four parts. In Part I The Present Threat she examines the policies of the current Tory-led coalition government. Part II is a historical survey which aims to demonstrate How We Got Here. In Part III The Way We Learn Now, Benn discusses selection, privatisation and private schools. And in the final part What Next?, she assesses the likely effects of current policies and ends with her own suggestions for the future.
The Benns' experience of sending their daughters to the local primary school was very positive. It began in the early years of Tony Blair's New Labour government, when the girls benefited from 'the visible public passion of an eager new government with a clear mandate to improve the nation's schools - and, in time, generous increases in education funding' (p.ix). It was a time, however, of several missed political opportunities: 'a popular young government with an impressive majority might have made some important reforms, that not only improved our schools, but expanded the possibilities of comprehensive education itself. Sadly, the political story was to unfold in a different direction' (p.ix).
The process of transferring the girls to secondary school was stressful. It 'confirmed for me that schooling remains one of the key ways in which class identity is formed in modern Britain' (p.x) and 'made me profoundly distrustful of the concept of parental choice, in all its varieties' (p.xi). She is particularly concerned about the role of 'faith schools', some of which 'are choosing families and pupils as much as the other way around, thus creating for themselves a highly favourable pupil mix' (p.xi).
Once again, the Benns chose the local community school, with its 'friendly, open spirit, its determination to do well by every child and to keep improving' (p.xii). Their faith in 'something other than raw league tables, covert social snobbery and urban myth' was more than justified. Yet 'comprehensive schools like ours are routinely denigrated in the wider world' (p.xii). Newspapers and TV companies frequently run negative stories about state schools, all of which 'give credence to the claim that our system is "broken"' (p.xiv).
Her objection to the objectors is based on the evidence of her own eyes: her daughters' enjoyment and sense of safety, the excellent teachers they encountered, the range of academic achievement within the school, the numerous extra-curricular activities, and the 'determined, friendly and modest' atmosphere of the school all confirmed for Benn that 'comprehensives work' (p.xv). Despite the criticisms, many comprehensive schools enjoy strong parental support, drawing on 'an extraordinary communal wealth that remains invisible to most measures of accountability' (p.xv).
Benn argues that good comprehensive education has never been presented to the people as a democratic ideal: indeed, 'it was never presented in any coherent form at all' (p.xviii). Instead, 'The nation continues to agonise over the related issues of school choice and school quality' with TV, radio and newspapers daily focusing on some new angle on the subject, be it 'parents failing to win their first choice of school, violence in the classroom or the impending crisis in further education, including rising tuition fees' (p.xviii).
The battle for Britain's schools 'has a long, bitter and tangled history' (p.xx). Firstly, there has been 'a long and harsh battle between supporters of comprehensive schools and those who want to retain selection in some form, whether through the restitution of the grammar schools or through more subtle means' (p.xx). Secondly, it has been part of a broader argument about 'whether our public services are to be run by a democratic, devolved state, or whether they are to be put out to tender' (p.xx). And thirdly, lurking behind the headlines about grammar, comprehensive and private schools, there has been a cultural strand - 'an often unarticulated anxiety, and frequently raw prejudice, about ethnic and religious difference, and a thinly veiled terror of downward mobility that fuels the frequently acrid, highly personalised clashes over school choice' (p.xxi).
Part I The Present Threat
In Chapter 1, Understanding the New Schools Revolution, Benn examines the policies of the Tory-led coalition government. She notes the relatively humble origins of Education Secretary Michael Gove, whose mission, she says, is to get more people like himself - 'the naturally brilliant who were not born to rule' - to an elite university: 'the classic grammar-school narrative that still obsesses our nation' (p.7).
Cameron and Gove were determined to learn from both the successes and failures of Tony Blair's premiership. In particular, they were not going to 'wait before pushing through radical change' (p.8). But their zeal caused problems and forced Gove into embarrassing U-turns: for example, when he exaggerated the number of schools anxious to become academies and announced the cancellation of Building Schools for the Future projects which, it transpired, were still going ahead.
Within just one month, Gove was presenting his Academies Bill to the Commons. England's schools were to be offered the chance to convert to academy status, with institutions already judged 'outstanding' by Ofsted to be fast-tracked through the process 'without consultation with staff, parents or the wider community; free schools could be set up on the same independent basis' (p.9).
Then came the cuts: two thirds of the school building programme, the abolition of the General Teaching Council and the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency, Child Trust funds and one-to-one tuition, the Educational Maintenance Allowance (later partly restored), a drastic reduction in the School PE and Sports Strategy (later partly restored) and the abolition of the Bookstart scheme.
None of this stopped Gove, however, who 'steamed ahead' (p.11) with the White Paper The Importance of Teaching, which was to form the basis of the 2011 Education Act.
Meanwhile the constant denigration of state education in the media continued unabated, with the government equally keen to portray the situation as a crisis. The political right had long argued that comprehensive schools failed bright, poor children. The Cameron government now claimed that comprehensives were 'failing all children on virtually all fronts, through low academic standards and poor vocational provision' (p.21). The fact that almost a third of British children lived in poverty was apparently irrelevant. So it was perhaps unsurprising that the government decided in early summer 2011 to abolish the publication of Contextual Value-Added measures in league tables, 'one way in which government was able to track the relative achievement of schools with high numbers of children from deprived backgrounds, but now apparently deemed patronising to the poor' (p.22).
By the end of their first year in power, with academies and free schools now the only option, it was clear that a principal aim of the government was to dismantle the role of local authorities in relation to education. 'A democratically accountable public service, nationally directed but locally administered, was fast being replaced by a state-subsidised and centrally controlled quasi-market' (p.32).
Part II How We Got Here
Having painted an accurate - and depressing - picture of the current state of affairs, Benn turns, in Chapter 2, The Piecemeal Revolution, to the history of comprehensive education.
She notes right-wing opposition to the very idea of mass education - the notion that 'the nation's children - Muslim, Christian or Jewish, upper-class or impoverished, girl or boy, black or white - might actually be educated in the same classrooms together' (p.37). The problems began with 'the crass divisions and base prejudices that shaped the 1944 Education Act' (p.38), so that, while 'the state underwrote a universal, compulsory free education system for all', it 'separated the country's children into winners and losers by the age of eleven - a division that predictably shaped itself along class lines' (p.38). The Act also 'wholly failed to address the problem of the private sector' (p.40).
The outcome of the 1944 Act was the 'tripartite system' (grammar, technical and secondary modern schools), in which class divisions were, in Sally Tomlinson's words, 'created, legitimised and justified' (p.42) and in which 'the twin threads of class anxiety and class ambition were woven right through the school organisation' (p.44). To this problematic background Benn adds the lack of resources, the poor state of many buildings, and the 'complete lack of a national curriculum' (p.44).
Despite all this, there were some exceptional schools which 'challenged the conventions and constrictions of the time' (p.45) and Benn describes the work of one of them: St George's-in-the-East, a post-war secondary modern run by the remarkable Alex Bloom.
During the 1950s it became clear that eleven-plus selection was not working and by the 1960s many middle-class parents - often Tory voters - were infuriated when their children 'failed' the eleven-plus. But public sentiment failed to persuade politicians to grasp the nettle, and local authorities were requested rather than compelled to go comprehensive. As the number of comprehensive schools increased, so did the hostility towards them among reactionary politicians and the press, who sought to portray the nation's schools as being in crisis.
The Labour government felt it had to take a stand, and the new Prime Minister, James Callaghan, intervened. His Ruskin College speech of October 1976 has been seen as 'one of the key turning points in the history of modern education' (p.58). Although comprehensive reorganisation was well under way, 'many unresolved questions hung over what kind of comprehensive school and what style of learning the nation wanted for its children. In many ways, they still do' (p.58).
Benn's historical survey continues in Chapter 3, The Long Years of Attrition. After 1976, she says, the 'piecemeal revolution' continued, 'Never openly repudiated, never truly acknowledged, but certainly never celebrated' (p.61). The comprehensive ideal came under pressure from a number of economic and political developments: the post-war consensus broke down; the writers of the Black Papers attacked 'progressive' education and blamed Plowden; and successive governments 'all advocated versions of parental choice and greater school freedom while tightening the control of the daily life of schools from the centre' (p.67). The 1988 Education Reform Act 'went further than any politicians had previously dared imagine' (p.69), establishing Grant-Maintained Schools and City Technology Colleges and imposing a National Curriculum; and John Patten's 'even more ambitious' Education Act of 1993 aimed to 'undercut local comprehensives and local authorities through encouraging further "specialisation" in the system' (p.70).
By 1996, 90 per cent of children were in comprehensive schools but there was 'a resounding and growing contradiction at the heart of education' (p.71), with governments claiming to support the comprehensive principle while attempting to bring in new forms of selection.
With its mantra 'standards, not structures', the first Blair government never had any serious intention of tackling 'the inequality embedded in favoured schools' (p.71) - the remaining grammars, the CTCs and the private schools. It said local authorities could decide whether to abolish the grammar schools - and then heavily weighted the balloting arrangements in favour of retention.
Despite this 'lack of clarity' on the part of the New Labour leadership, Benn says there were successes - 'many of them': the proportion of primary school children failing to reach the expected levels in English and maths fell from a half to one fifth; the proportion of pupils achieving five good GCSEs rose from 45 to over 60 per cent; and, for all its problems, the school buildings programme provided generations of pupils with 'access to top-class facilities for learning, art, drama and music for the first time ever' (p.73).
But there was an air of negativity, too, with talk of 'bog-standard' comprehensives illustrating 'an inability to acknowledge that many comprehensive schools were diverse, dynamic and flourishing and that there were often substantive, structural reasons when this wasn't the case' (p.75).
The Blairs' choice of the London Oratory for their own children 'played its part in making faith schools an increasingly popular avenue of alternative choice for the middle classes' (p.76). It became clear that many faith schools were becoming middle-class enclaves: 'Admissions policy had become the new battleground' (p.76).
Then there was the academies programme, which raised serious questions about 'why private individuals and religious groups necessarily possessed greater skills to run a school than a local authority' (p.80), and whether they would bring their own discrete agendas to education - 'which of course they did, in return for a relatively small amount of capital, some of it never actually paid' (p.80).
The academies programme marked a significant shift in government policy. From its early concentration on 'standards not structures', the New Labour government was once again 'tearing the system up by the roots' (p.80). And after the 2005 election, it was clear that Blair intended to push ahead with 'major privatisation of state schools and to further diminish local authority control and influence' (p.80). As a result, dissident Labour MPs set up the Alternative White Paper group and the 2006 Education and Inspections Act only passed into law with Conservative support.
Part III The Way We Learn Now
In Chapter 4, The Politics of Selection, Benn notes that parents find themselves facing 'the byzantine, bewildering realities of our school system' in which little has changed since RH Tawney wrote, in 1931, that the 'hereditary curse upon English education is its organization upon lines of social class' (p.87-8). While politicians claim that parents are able to choose schools, most educationists argue that it is often the schools which choose their pupils. 'Selection still defines and moulds our education system', she says. 'Every piece of legislation over the past twenty-five years has resulted in more, rather than less, selection, covert or overt, including the Academies Act of 2010' (p.88).
Proponents of grammar schools argue that they promote social mobility, despite the 'clear and consistent evidence that grammar schools educate very few children from poor homes' (p.90). The evils of selection infect many schools - indeed, ensuring fair admissions, says Benn, is rather like 'solving an endlessly recurring series of minor crimes' (p.92), and she lists some of the tricks used in the process which result in many comprehensive schools being, 'to all intents and purposes, secondary moderns' (p.93).
The international evidence is equally compelling: 'whether it's Finland or South Korea or the province of Alberta in Canada, genuinely non-selective education systems routinely top the world league tables' (p.101).
She acknowledges that the concept of balanced school intakes poses problems: 'It would be virtually impossible to engineer a good social blend in every school, even if such a thing were considered desirable' (p.103), and she argues that 'It makes greater sense to try for a mix of attainment, through banded entry to schools' (p.103). This would involve making a judgement on each child's intellectual ability which 'risks reproducing, if in diluted form, the problems of the eleven-plus', but, she argues, 'It may be that this is an interim price worth paying' (p.104).
In Chapter 5, Going Private, Benn considers the effects of the privatisation of education. She first describes her visit to Mossbourne Community Academy, which, with its trademark red-edged grey blazers, its Richard Rogers-designed building, and its consistently positive Ofsted reports, is 'this country's most shining example of the kind of privatised school that the Coalition would like to develop' (p.105). She notes the school's 'genuinely comprehensive intake' (p.108), but argues that the notion that 'bad' local authority schools are closed down to make way for dazzlingly effective private academies is a distortion of the truth: 'the real story is not so simple' (p.108).
She notes that private sponsors have provided very little money for the schools (in some cases none at all); that the programme has proved to be much more expensive than anticipated; that academies are not required to abide by national pay and conditions arrangements; that parents' rights are significantly diminished; and that academies exclude almost twice as many 'troublesome children' as other schools (p.110).
Perhaps the greatest worry, however, is the diminution of local democracy and accountability as the government strips the local authorities of their powers:
Take away the democratic elements of school planning and you are left with, on the one hand, a kind of widespread anarchy, where anyone with special determination, good contacts and influence, or a particular plan can push ahead, and, on the other, a series of mini-fiefdoms, controlled by powerful interests, who are permitted to run schools as they see fit. For all their flaws, local councillors, and many school governors, are elected. They can be removed, re-elected, or challenged at any time. (p.112)Benn questions the claim that academies dramatically improve exam results and notes that some of them place a heavy emphasis on vocational qualifications 'to boost league table results' (p.115).
She points out that the academies 'are only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the privatisation of state education' (p.117); that the education market is now worth more than £100bn; and that the ever-increasing level of outsourcing since the Thatcher period has resulted in business now largely doing the job that was once done, in-house, by local authorities. Perhaps the biggest trend in the 'edu-market' is the growth of 'chains', organisations running groups of schools, often nationwide, with resources rivalling those of a local authority - 'a development that many believe will soon dominate the education landscape' (p.121).
Meanwhile, Sweden's free schools and the American charter schools - so admired by Cameron and Gove - have been less successful than was at first claimed and have raised many concerns. The Swedish scheme 'licences parental choice on the basis of race, faith and particularly class' (p.126), and the founder of the charter schools movement, Albert Shanker, is now apparently concerned that 'what had been intended as a progressive initiative, to improve the public school system, could be turning into the means to destroy it' (p.128).
Benn concludes the chapter with a warning about our obsession with raw data: 'Concentration on quantity - high test scores - pushes out any consideration of quality' and leads to 'teaching to the test', she argues (p.132). While Wales 'chose to dump the whole testing/league-tables paraphernalia and to concentrate on learning instead', in England 'the strange marriage of privatisation and hyper-accountability, with all its pressures and restrictions, looks as though it is here to stay' (p.134).
In Chapter 6, The New School Ties, she considers the English public schools, which have not - as some predicted - withered away, but have been 'ingeniously reborn' (p.136). She begins with an account of her visit to Wellington College and then recounts the history of English public schools from the first recorded use of the term in 1180 to the present. Although there was growing hostility to them during the twentieth century, politicians of both right and left were unwilling to tackle the problem: 'Astonishingly, not a single Labour MP supported an amendment to the 1944 Act which would have required all parents to send their children to a local authority school' (p.141).
'Let's state the obvious', she says. 'Private schools perpetuate segregation and inequality, divide neighbourhoods, friends and even families and, year after year, rob the state system of the most affluent and often high-achieving pupils' (p.144). And she warns that in many ways 'the new, more relaxed image, with its illusion of greater egalitarianism, is much more dangerous than the old stereotypes of boaters and bullying' (p.147).
She notes that under Blair, private schools were actively encouraged 'to sponsor academies, partner failing schools, and help failing private schools to convert to academies' (p.151). Such schemes run the 'enduring risk of both patronage and self-congratulation ... inevitable, perhaps, when the powerful and well resourced decide to rescue the less fortunate, however benign their intentions' (p.153). Some of these schemes have been less than successful: 'Many of the high-profile academies of the New Labour era have already run into serious trouble' (p.153).
Part IV What Next?
In her penultimate chapter, The Shape of Things to Come?, Benn makes some predictions about the likely shape of education provision in the years ahead, noting the confusion over admissions policies and warning of 'the emergence of a new form of selection and the old tripartite division' (p.164). She wonders what effects 'the creeping privatisation of primary education' (p.165) will have, and warns that free schools will present 'a more direct danger of segregation' (p.166). She notes that seven of the ten proposed free schools in London's Waltham Forest would be faith-based and warns of 'the chaos and fragmentation that would ensue if even half of these schools got going' (p.167). There are concerns, too, that large chains of academies might effectively replace local authorities, despite government assurances to the contrary.
Parents will be faced with a bewildering diversity of provision but certain trends will be discernible: 'The fast pace of technology, and the temptation for private providers to cut costs, will increase standardised, centralised learning methods' (p.170). At the same time, there will be a return to more traditional methods, 'harsh discipline and private-school-style uniforms' (p.171).
And what will happen when some of the new schools - the 'converter' academies and the free schools - run into financial trouble, as they almost certainly will? (Indeed, some already have). 'One can easily imagine the next step: government giving permission to private companies to make a profit - largely, to get schools off the taxpayer's back' (p.172). This has already happened in Sweden and right-wing think tanks are now 'openly urging the government to move in this direction' (p.175).
Benn poses a number of questions about the nature of our democracy and our schools. At every level, she says, public education is becoming less accountable:
The loss of local authority involvement is literally incalculable. Centralised planning of school places; important powers of scrutiny over which schools are taking what pupils; expertise and guidance on a range of important school issues, from special needs provision to the appointment of head teachers - these collaborative elements will wither away if the local school landscape becomes shaped by naked competition, rather than managed collaboration. (p.176)She begins her final chapter, 'Go Public': A New School Model for a New Century, with the warning that 'We have reached an important turning point. Our state education system is fast fragmenting, and without full and proper public debate' (p.179). And she asks 'Will we - parents, citizens, taxpayers - stand by as one of our most vital public services passes into hands of venture capitalists, hedge fund managers and a growing array of faith groups?' (p.179).
She urges us to go back to first principles and 'remind ourselves of the profound importance of education for education's sake, rather than education mainly as a means of economic and professional advancement' (p.180). She notes that Richard Pring identified three questions which should shape the education of young people: 'What is it that makes us human?', 'How did we become so?' and 'How might we become more so?' (p.180). She argues that we could learn much from the original free-school philosophy of the twentieth century, with its emphasis on 'collaboration, experimentation and independence of thought' (p.181), and she commends the view of AS Neill, that good schooling 'should explore, and help children to develop, the vital balance between compulsion and trust-in-self, duty and creative freedom' (p.182).
She warns that government cuts - in music, arts and literary projects, one-to-one tuition, the closure of public libraries and Sure Start centres and the scrapping of many school building projects - are 'already undermining the right of every child to a broad and balanced education' (p.183).
She condemns ability-labelling and describes how, at the Wroxham primary school in Hertfordshire, which is part of the Learning Without Limits network, head teacher Alison Peacock has 'outlawed all discussion and assignation of ability' (p.186).
She condemns the 'ever-rising tide of marketisation and increasing fragmentation' which is causing us to lose sight of 'the crucial role of the state in planning and providing for public services and ensuring their rational and fair distribution' (p.189).
She is concerned that trainee teachers should be given 'space to reflect on the profession they are about to enter', that they should be 'widely read in educational and psychological theory' and understand issues relating to race, gender, culture and class (p.195). She argues that, in order to give teachers more professional power and autonomy, we need to develop a 'lighter-touch curriculum' and that, while we should not abandon testing altogether, 'far more of this could be undertaken on a class or year-group level, and adapted rather more to the pace at which individual classes, or pupils, progress' (p.196). She bemoans the 'sterile division between the academic and vocational aspects of education'; argues that 'if we are seriously to reduce the differential outcomes of the better-off and the poor, we have to move towards a genuinely non-selective system'; and commends mixed-ability teaching, which, for all its challenges, 'seems to offer the fairest and overall most effective method of learning, certainly in the early years of secondary education' (p.197).
The result of creeping privatisation is that we - citizens and parents - are becoming 'passive spectators of an alliance between the private sector and politicians as they step in to "save" civil society from its failures, including the apparent failure of egalitarianism' (p.199). Public services, argues Benn, should 'remain within the remit of a dynamic democratic state, at every level' (p.200):
We could organise our education system along much simpler and fairer lines, and in ways that unify, not divide, the nation. ... A service that allows the poorest family to feel confident that their child will receive a broadly similar educational start in life to their better-off peers, and one that promises to enrich and challenge all. A service based on neighbourhood schools - housed in well-designed, well-equipped, aesthetically pleasing and properly maintained buildings, enjoying plenty of outdoor space - with balanced intakes and a broad, rich curriculum that will allow each child, whatever their talents, temperament or interests, to flourish. (p.201)And she concludes:
It is time ... to reclaim the mantle of genuine reform for our side in the long-running school wars. Genuine comprehensive reform is unfinished. There is much exciting work still to be done. The rewards, in terms of better-educated citizens of the future and greater common ground between communities and religions and classes, could be enormous. The alternative scenario - of an increasingly fragmented, mistrustful and divided nation, controlled rather than enlightened, dependent on the unstable whim of private or religious enterprise - is too frightening to contemplate. (p.204)
Melissa Benn's book conveys a sense of urgency, which is just as well since it comes 'at a pivotal and highly dangerous point' in the history of English education. The 'choice and diversity' revolution begun by Thatcher and pursued by Blair is now being advanced 'with manic zeal' by Cameron's Tory-led coalition. Add to that the swingeing cuts in every area of public life and you have 'a high-risk strategy whose wider impact will soon be felt by the public' (p.xix).
The book is clearly heart-felt, much of it based on her own experience of the state education system - she describes herself as 'an engaged combatant, parent, writer and campaigner' (p.xxi). It was written 'partly out of anger and frustration, but mostly from a powerful sense of hope' by someone who is not only a product of comprehensive education but 'fiercely proud of that inheritance' (p.xxii).
It is well researched and informative. She conducted a wide range of interviews with heads, teachers, parents and others, and made numerous visits to a variety of schools, all of which are recounted in the book and add to its interest and authenticity.
It is extremely readable - I'm not a fast reader but I got through it in two afternoons. Benn's journalistic style is compelling - even exciting - and her sense of urgency makes the book almost impossible to put down. Above all, she manages to make you feel that change is actually possible - a thrilling antidote to the daily attacks on our schools by Gove and the media which, personally, I find so debilitating.
It is evangelistic - in the best sense of that word. Benn is anxious 'to contribute to the creation of a genuinely non-selective system and the enrichment of education for all children, not just the lucky minority' (p.xxii). Robin Pedley, an early supporter of comprehensive reform, argued that what is at stake is the encouragement of 'a larger and more generous attitude' within society and within us all. Benn writes that she hopes the reader will find evidence of that spirit in this book. I certainly did. It represents her attempt 'to confront the realities of our divided school system, and to help bring the necessary forces together to remake it in a more inclusive, open-hearted and effective form' (p.xxii).
I thoroughly commend School Wars to all those who, like me, are concerned about the imminent destruction of our state education system. Buy it! Read it!
And then join the battle by supporting
The Local Schools Network. Founded in 2010 by Melissa Benn with fellow activists and parents Fiona Millar, Francis Gilbert and Henry Stewart, it provides a forum for the many thousands with positive experiences of state education who want to find ways to improve it, rather than disparage or dismantle it.
Comprehensive Future. Campaigns for a comprehensive secondary school system in England with fair admissions criteria to all publicly funded schools, guaranteeing an equal chance to all children and an end to selection by ability and aptitude.
You may also like to look at
Learning Without Limits. Dedicated to developing approaches to teaching and learning that do not rely on determinist beliefs about ability, the project is inspired by decades of research that have drawn attention to the many complex ways in which ideas of fixed ability, and the practices based on them, can limit learning.
This review was first published in Forum 54(1) Spring 2012 142-152.