Verso, £10.99, 233pp, £9.89 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
School Wars: the battle for Britain's education by Melissa Benn
Shaming the bullies
This week the Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, in response to Nick Clegg's claim that the newly minted free schools will not be run for profit under his watch, trotted out the ominous line that: "We don't need to have profit-making organisations involved at the moment." So it seems a propitious time to be releasing a book that spells out exactly what the consequences are likely to be if and when private industry is allowed to run local schools for a profit.
Melissa Benn's School Wars performs a number of tasks simultaneously. It is an extended paean to the ideal of comprehensive education; an examination of how our state schools came to be viewed as they currently are; and, most importantly, a clear-sighted prediction of an entirely dystopian educational future if the "marketisation" of state provision continues at its current, breakneck pace.
Its author is the daughter of the late Caroline Benn, the revered co-founder of the Campaign for Comprehensive Education. Melissa Benn is a rational ideologue, deeply steeped in the history of the issue, who has previously published, alongside her equally fiercely intelligent friend Fiona Millar, the seminal pamphlet "A Comprehensive Future". In short, she has substantial form.
The book begins with a poetically eloquent defence of her own daughters' inner-city comprehensive as "near utopian". From there, she moves on to recent history, cataloguing the current administration's almost suicidally energetic embrace of Tony Blair's various educational legacies, which are sweetly satirised as "escape routes for parents like him". About them she notes that most of the Labour Party was, being almost comically blind to their ultimate impact, almost entirely ambivalent.
Her analysis of how the British press is inclined to cover state education is spot on, and is contrasted cleverly with the observation that "private schools enjoy virtually wholesale freedom from press intrusion and negative comments". She observes that anyone arguing for greater fairness in our school system is immediately demonised by a thundering right-wing press, and in doing so brushes up against the arriviste educational servants of the right: the twentysomething daughters of government-approved academics; the willing patsy dispensing woeful Melanie Phillips-like lines to an applauding Tory conference; and the journalist who was once a judge on Top Chef and is now an expert in everything that's wrong with state education.
Their "unchallengeable anecdotal detail", which is accurately summed up as "not enough Jesus or competitive sport", has contributed to a debate on state education in the press that is pathetically over-sensationalised, unapologetically prejudiced and wilfully underinformed. It has also contributed to a public level of consciousness about what goes on in so many local state schools that many parents, whose children are about to graduate to secondary education, refuse even to visit them as "they know what they are like".
Admirably, Benn is disinclined to throw her anger around with a trowel. There is a lightness of touch here, and her irony is deft, the combatants being allowed to hang themselves without the author ever feeling the need to pull too hard on their legs.
She teases out the fine nuances of inconsistency in the brave and forthright admission by Anthony Seldon, headmaster of Wellington, that private schools perpetuate inequality and contribute to a system that he has referred to as "apartheid", with his public call for an end to what he calls "factory schooling" in the state sector. She also notes quietly that one particular academy building in a particularly depressed part of the North-east was "modelled, rather incredibly, on a Tuscan mountain village". And, in a masterpiece of understatement, she makes winking reference to the current Secretary of State's reaction to the High Court's conclusion that his refusal to consult on the Building Schools for the Future programme was "so unfair as to amount to an abuse of power" - which was to regard such a judgment as being "a minor technicality".
The strongest section of the book is towards the end. In it, Benn outlines what she sees as the inevitable consequences of the British government directly importing the largely discredited Charter School model from the US; all the while cherry-picking statistics which trumpet its few successes.
They turn out, under Benn's gaze, to be the direct opposite of the truth. She reveals that the model on which the government is basing the changes to our school system has 15 per cent of its students drop out (or disappear) each year, while spending in the region of three times more per pupil than the normal state schools. In the vast majority of cases, these schools attain either exactly the same, or markedly worse, results than American state schools.
According to Benn, the near-future of British education, if the various lobby groups directly supported or set up by Tory central office get their way, is likely to mirror that of America's recent past, with increased racial segregation, faiths educated separately from each other and class division further entrenched. In Benn's book, current education policy is banking a whole heap of trouble for the future.
She notes the CBI's "extraordinary presumption concerning the rights of industry to interfere at every level", then goes on to examine the impact of the Swedish Free Schools on which the current administration is so keen. They are seen, by many, as a device with which to reintroduce selection by the back door, install the profit motive in our schools, and then give those schools to the personal friends of the Prime Minister. "How does a school's purpose, meaning and role change when it is, in effect, the property of a benign billionaire?" she wonders, before acknowledging, pessimistically – though perhaps realistically – that "the game might well be up". The future appears to be that almost all of British schools will be owned and controlled by "venture capitalists, hedge fund managers and a growing array of faith groups".
In terms of future education policy, Benn's book could well be an important watershed. It is a clear-sighted re-statement of why universal, comprehensive education is – obviously – the best option. It should, and hopefully will, be taken as a rallying call to the left: to reconnect with their principles, and replace populist pragmatism with the optimistic idealism through which an informed and egalitarian approach to education policy can at least try to deliver us a more equal society.
More likely, though, given that the Department of Education regards the argument about whether private providers should take over state institutions as won, her most pessimistic assertions are true. The game is up.
UK 'secondary teacher of the year' in 2004, Phil Beadle is a teacher and author whose most recent book is 'Bad Education' (Crown House)
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