Sunday 30 October 2011

School Wars by Melissa Benn - A Review

Join the discussion about the battle for the future of comprehensive education at 'Socialism 2011', a weekend of discussion and debate hosted by the Socialist Party at the University of London Union, Malet St      WC1E 7HY.
I will be introducing the discussion on " 'Free' schools at a high price: defeating the attack on comprehensive education" on Sunday Nov. 6,                 1pm - 3pm.
For more information, visit:

“School Wars – The Battle for Britain’s Education” gives a readable and concise overview of the post-war expansion of comprehensive education – and the growing threat that these educational gains could be washed away by a tidal wave of Academies and Free Schools.
Melissa Benn’s book explains how the rapid growth of these ‘independent state’ schools, unaccountable to elected Local Authorities, is strengthening the grip of private and religious interests over state education. Dedicated to her father, Tony, the veteran Labour left-winger, 'School Wars' is a heartfelt defence of universal comprehensive education as the best way to provide a good education for every child in an environment where children from all classes and backgrounds are taught together.
Her strong convictions are based on the facts and arguments outlined in the book, but also on her own positive experiences as both a pupil and as a mother of children educated in London comprehensives: “All this has confirmed it for me: comprehensives work. Given an increase in resources and greater political will in relation to school structures, and particularly selection, they could be world-class”.
But why, Benn asks, is the threatened dismantling of comprehensive education not producing the same level of public outcry as the attacks on the NHS? Her answer is that comprehensive education was never legislated for in any coherent form by any of the post-war Labour or Conservative Governments.
It was introduced slowly and unevenly and never became a universal system. Several Local Authorities, like Kent and Buckinghamshire, still retain grammar schools, selecting through the ‘11-plus’ exam even today. The fee-paying ‘public’ school sector for Britain’s elite remained untouched while the 1944 Education Act made sure that the ‘voluntary’ church schools also retained their privileged position within the state system.
The 1944 Act introduced free secondary education for all, but through a divided tripartite system of grammar, technical and secondary modern schooling. Unlike the universal NHS, class divisions were clearly maintained in state education.
But perhaps the difference in attitude is also down to more deep-seated prejudices. Benn rightly states that the notion that all children of whatever background should be taught in the same classrooms and given the same educational opportunities has always been a radical one.
Genuinely comprehensive education will always be opposed by those who believe, in essence, that some children will always be too ‘dull’ to benefit from it. Benn points to the influence of Sir Cyril Burt’s now discredited research into IQ tests which underpinned the 1944 Act. “Burt believed that social class correlated with intelligence: the higher up the social scale you were, the greater your natural fund of intelligence”.
The same debates had been fought within the Labour Movement at the time of the 1902 Education Act. While trade unionists campaigned for the ‘common school’ for all youth, the right-wing Fabian trend supported Sidney Webb’s selective ‘capacity catching’ system of scholarships to provide secondary education to ‘all whose brains make it profitable for the community to equip them with more advanced instruction’.
Such prejudices may not often be voiced so bluntly today but many of the supporters of Gove’s ‘schools revolution’ have a similar philosophy. While some claim to stand in the ‘comprehensive’ tradition of supporting the disadvantaged, Benn suggests they see their job as promoting ‘social mobility’ for just a “few talented children from poorer homes ... deserving of a more rigorous education”. The rest will be left to struggle in underfunded maintained schools and a smattering of vocational academies and technical colleges.
This is far removed from the long-standing labour movement demands for an education system that helps to transform the prospects and outlook for working-class youth as a whole. Instead, it seeks to ‘rescue’ a select few while leaving class divisions as entrenched as ever.
Gove’s proposal in the new draft schools admissions code to allow Academies and Free Schools to prioritise children on free school meals (FSM) has to be seen in this context. Just as the privatised American schools in the ‘Knowledge is Power Programme’ (KIPP)’ have done, this is about picking the ‘low-hanging fruit’ - those highly motivated low-income students who can produce good exam results at minimum cost. The fact that they will come with the extra ‘pupil premium’ funding attached to FSM pupils is an added bonus.
When combined with the additional capital funding and boosted school budgets allocated to Academies, Benn dubs it as Gove’s “canny political con trick” - “the swift but steady transfer of resources from the needy to the better-off, in the name of the disadvantaged”.
Of course, this educational counter-revolution has an important economic context. At a time of post-war growth, the expansion of comprehensive education chimed with the economic need for a better educated workforce. Benn explains how a series of official reports in the late 1950s and early 60s came out against selection and, by 1964, 90 out of 163 local education authorities, both Labour and Conservative, had submitted plans for comprehensive reorganisation.
In many areas, comprehensive reform was uncontroversial and successful. But the old prejudices in favour of grammar schools were never far away. Reform was piecemeal and hesitant. Benn correctly describes the Labour Party’s own ambivalence and hesitancy in forcing through change as “yet another missed opportunity”.
Politicians also had to take note of growing parental opposition, particularly from middle-class families whose children had failed the ‘11-plus’. Recognising that Tory support for selection had helped them lose the 1964 General Election, even ‘Milk-Snatcher’ Thatcher, Education Secretary in the 1970 Conservative Government, signed-off large numbers of further plans for comprehensive reform. By 1974, 60% of school-age children were attending them. But the “anti-comprehensive juggernaut was already starting to roll.”
As capitalism contracted, it wasn’t just financial pressures that lay behind calls for education cuts. More fundamental questions about the need to educate the majority were raised. As Benn puts it, “the oil crisis of the early 1970s, the three-day week and the general sense of economic insecurity of that period, led many to question the price of equality”.
A civil servant quoted in an earlier book “Thirty Years On”, written by Clyde Chitty and Melissa’s mother, Caroline Benn, put it more chillingly: “There has to be selection because we are beginning to create aspirations which increasingly society cannot match ... When young people cannot find work at all ... or work which meets their abilities or expectations ... then we are only creating frustration with perhaps disturbing social consequences ... people must be educated once more to know their place”.
Benn charts how, from Labour Prime Minister Callaghan’s 1976 ‘Ruskin speech’ that echoed the media attacks on progressive education, through the governments of Thatcher, Major, Blair and Brown, the educational gains of the post-war boom were steadily reclaimed.
Despite Blunkett’s promises, Blair’s administration did nothing to abolish the remaining 164 grammars which “have increasingly become the preserve of the better-off”. However, no government has yet sought to restore an openly selective system. The damaging legacy of secondary moderns was all too clear – blighting the self-esteem of many young people and, as statistics for those Authorities that have retained the 11-plus still demonstrate, depressing examination results overall.
So, by 1996, 90% of children were taught in ostensibly ‘comprehensive’ schools. However, those schools now operated in a competitive environment created by the new neo-liberal consensus. This emphasised the need for ‘choice and diversity’ to allow the ‘market’ to weave its magic on public services.
The Tories’ 1988 Education Reform Act had introduced Grant-Maintained Schools and City Technology Colleges along with ‘open enrolment’ and ‘local management of schools’. All were meant to undermine the powers of local authorities and to encourage schools to compete for pupils in order to attract the extra funding that came with a bigger intake.
Benn explains how the 1988 Act also introduced the national curriculum, followed in 1995 by school league tables and SATs. “Schools now became like shops, with league tables, a kind of shorthand indicator of desirability”. A whole series of Acts followed under Labour, including the introduction of City Academies, paving the way to Gove’s present onslaught.
Benn explains how this competition quickly created ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ as schools sought to make “their comprehensive ‘mix’ a far more favourable one, attractive to middle-class parents: results could be boosted, league-table positions improved, and the virtuous circle set in motion. Meanwhile, community schools in areas of deprivation ... were struggling to deal with large numbers of children on low incomes, many with poor English and/or behavioural problems linked to difficulties in family or home life. Here ... a vicious circle was all too often in place, despite the best efforts of heads and teachers”.
The 11-plus may not exist in most authorities, but school admissions policy is still a key battleground in every area. Academies, faith and foundation schools have become their own admission authorities with limited checks on whether they are following the ‘admissions code’ in practice. Benn quotes research from Anne West of the LSE suggesting that in ‘own admissions’ schools nearly half were operating some sort of covert or overt selection.
Benn lists a whole series of ruses used by schools ranging from the overt selection of 10% of pupils by ‘aptitude’ allowed in ‘specialist’ schools or the complex criteria set down by some faith schools to engineer a favourable intake, to the selective choice of the ‘right’ sort of family from a waiting list or the promotion of the school by leafleting in the ‘right’ area.
Selection is not only about the pupils schools let in; it’s also the pupils they push out. Benn points to the official statistics confirming the higher exclusion rates in academies. She also points to a study showing an astonishing 15% annual drop-out rate in the US KIPP schools.
This polarisation means that many ‘comprehensive’ schools are, in effect, already ‘secondary moderns’ that inevitably struggle at the foot of the ‘league tables’. This will be shown up even more starkly now that the Coalition has abolished the publication of Contextual Value-Added measures which, for all their faults, at least went some way to recognising that home background remains the main influence on exam outcomes. Yet Gove’s latest proposal is to take advantage of this supposed ‘failure’ by using new powers to force schools that fail to meet his imposed ‘floor targets’ into becoming Academies.
Benn explains that results from the 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) show that the UK now has one of the widest gaps “between the reading abilities of our quickest and slowest learners ... Most of the differences [are] explained by differences in the socio-economic background ... in short, we operate a kind of educational apartheid”.
Yet, the proponents of Academies and Free Schools want to ignore these facts. Instead of the unspoken prejudices about innate ‘intelligence’, many of the attacks on comprehensive education now come from the opposite side of the ‘nature or nurture’ debate. While presiding over cuts and growing child poverty, they try to argue that, if children really do have equal abilities across the class divide, why should it matter if some schools have a more privileged intake than others?
Benn quotes Blair’s remarks about ‘the soft bigotry of low expectations’ and Free School campaigner Katherine Birbalsingh’s accusations of a ‘culture of excuses’ that ‘keeps poor children poor’. This propaganda – looking to blame teachers, trade unions and local authorities for the problems created by a divided society and education system – can attract support from frustrated parents. It is backed by a media campaign deliberately presenting a distorted picture of indiscipline and underachievement. Its real intentions must be exposed – to introduce an even more polarised and unequal system dominated by the private sector.
New Labour left us with 203 academies. But Benn explains how the Tories were determined to extend their reach far beyond the inner-city areas where they had first been introduced. Academy status was offered to ‘outstanding schools’, then extended to ‘good’ schools and even ‘satisfactory’ schools if they joined in Academy partnerships. “Plainly, the aim was to create a majority of privately managed institutions, leaving a rump of struggling schools within the ambit of local authorities, themselves undermined by savage budget cuts”.
Benn explains how the Tories saw Blair’s caution at launching such widespread change as a mistake, and rushed through their Academies Bill at breakneck speed. Within a year, they had brought the number of Academies up to 600, with plans for many more, including in the primary sector. In September 2011, 24 new ‘free schools’ also opened, again with plans for more to follow.
The Tories claim that their education market works but Benn spells out that the international evidence points to the contrary. “Whether it’s Finland or South Korea or Alberta in Canada, genuinely non-selective systems routinely top the world league tables”.
Evidence from the USA confirms that, on average, privatised ‘charter schools’ do no better than their state-run counterparts. The PISA results for Sweden show a significant fall in their international ranking since the introduction of free schools – at the same time as social segregation between schools has grown. 
There is no doubt that many schools have been attracted towards taking Academy status by the promise of advantageous funding arrangements at a time of shrinking budgets. But even those Heads supporting conversion recognise that those ‘bribes’ to participate in the break-up of state education won’t last forever. The Treasury will demand further cuts.
Of course smaller class sizes and greater funding would make a significant difference. But again, the international evidence exposes the truth. Pupil teacher ratios in Swedish free schools have got worse, not better, as their owners aim to increase their profit margins.
‘School Wars’ leaves its readers in no doubt that the pursuit of profit is a significant part of the ‘state-subsidised privatisation’ of education. Each of the 35 circulars and Acts since 1988 has created more opportunities for private companies to move into the education market estimated by the ATL union to be worth around £100 billion. It includes school inspections, textbooks and software as well as outsourced local authority functions such as accountancy, buildings maintenance and professional development.
But it’s the substantial organisations now running ‘chains’ of academies like ARK, E-ACT and the United Learning Trust, with resources easily able to rival local authorities, that are set to dominate the new school system.  Other for-profit providers like Edison Learning are waiting in the wings for the government to lift the ban on running schools for a profit.
These chains are already free to ignore national pay and conditions for staff. One of the principal aims of the schools revolution is to atomise the workforce and undermine trade unions. Parents will also find their rights “significantly diminished, with governing bodies largely appointed and controlled by the sponsor”. Instead of a Local Authority overseeing provision of places, admissions and special needs, at least in principle in the interests of the population as a whole, individual schools and chains will be trying to put their interests first.
Benn doesn’t dodge the difficult arguments – such as how to explain the apparent success of Mossbourne Academy in Hackney where 83% of students achieved five A*-C grades in 2010. Its Head, Sir Michael Wilshaw, has just been appointed the new Head of Ofsted. She argues that it “can be put down to three key elements, none of which are intrinsically bound up with privatisation”. These are its huge emphasis on test preparation, a tough discipline code but, above all, that the school has a genuinely comprehensive spread of students. But such a balanced intake will prove to be the exception, rather than the rule.
Every teacher would accept that students need an orderly environment in which to learn, but the underlying culture of some of these schools is reminiscent of the harsh discipline instilled under the Victorian ‘payment by results’ system where schools were similarly financially dependent on narrow exam scores.
Some Mossbourne pupils refer to its ‘chilly atmosphere’. Benn points out that KIPP schools also boast of their authoritarian ‘no excuses’ culture, describing reports of ‘chants, songs, ritualised greetings and public humiliations’. The regime is no easier for teachers. Just as in Sweden’s Free Schools, as the teacher Sigbritt Herbert writing in The Socialist ( explained, teacher turnover is high.
Benn warns of a future where private providers will seek to cut costs by cutting back on qualified teachers through the use of standardised computer-based learning, already a trend in Sweden pointed to by Herbert.
As Benn asks “Is this a model that we in the UK seriously want to follow?” Yes, she argues, we can learn from Mossbourne’s close attention to individual progress, but do we just want schools to be exam factories that can most efficiently churn out test scores?  In contrast, Benn describes her visit to Wellington College where, for the small price of close to £30,000 a year in fees, students enjoy fantastic extra-curricular opportunities and a curriculum which includes lessons in emotional education or ‘roundedness’ as well as academic success.
Why shouldn’t the education offered to our ruling elite be applicable to the rest of us? To the unnamed civil servant, it’s undoubtedly because we’re meant to be taught to ‘know our place’. Instead, Benn raises examples of what a genuine comprehensive education could look like, freed from the constant ‘levelling’ of children’s work, providing a broad curriculum that doesn’t push children down a particular pathway at an early age, bringing diverse communities together instead of segregating them on class, ethnic and religious grounds.
‘School Wars’ proposes not an NHS, but an NES, a National Education Service based on well-designed, well-equipped neighbourhood schools with balanced pupil intakes. Instead of competing for pupils, there should be collaboration between schools overseen by some kind of admissions forum. Benn raises the question, without reaching a definitive conclusion, about how a fair balance of abilities and social composition might best be achieved. How can we overcome the social isolation of a school serving just one deprived estate? What are the benefits of banding arrangements, catchment areas or random ‘lottery’ allocations? These are debates that parents, trade unionists and socialists need to take further.
To her credit, Benn doesn’t overlook that most blatant divide in British education – the separate education of a privileged caste in our fee-paying ‘public’ schools. She rightly pours scorn on the idea that we should continue to subsidise supposedly ‘charitable’ private schools to the tune of £100 million a year and criticises the 1945 Labour Government for failing to seek their abolition at a time when they were most vulnerable.
The demand for abolition of the public school system is as valid today as it was in 1945. But where is the political party that’s going to call for it? Which of the main political parties is even prepared to stand with trade unions and campaigners like Melissa Benn and fight against the privatisation and dismantling of what remains of our comprehensive system?
This is one of the weaknesses of ‘School Wars’. While Melissa Benn is prepared to criticise New Labour, and particularly Blair’s educational treachery, she still tries to contrast Labour successes against Tory failures when there is so little of substance to choose between them. For example, the book opens with talk of “generous increases” in funding under Blair, but very few schools saw this translated into significant increases in resourcing. The improvements in exam outcomes that Benn cites were, above all, the result of the ‘exam factory’ culture that she rightly criticises and an unsustainable increase in teacher workload.
The book is also unashamedly written from a middle-class perspective, discussing the guilt (or lack of it) of well-paid acquaintances who opt for private education or a selective school for their children rather than their local comprehensive.  As Benn states, what chance does a working-class family have to afford school fees or to access “the shadowy world of tutoring and exam preparation that powers children into highly selective grammars”?
It is those working-class families that need to be participating in this debate and, as in the ‘school wars’ of over a century ago, mobilising to demand a free publicly-run comprehensive education system under the ‘management of elected representatives of the people’. This was at a time when directly elected ‘School Boards’ were indeed given responsibility for local education. These elections led to some of the first electoral successes for independent working-class representatives, helped by the ‘plumping’ system of voting that aided minority representation. These victories helped convince the Tories (with the support of Sidney Webb) to abolish the School Boards in the 1902 Education Act.
Benn argues that we should respond to criticism of how local authorities manage schools by calling for a modern equivalent of ‘School Boards’. She argues that such directly elected ‘Local Education Councils’ could involve representatives of political parties, community activists, school students, professionals, business representatives and parents.
Benn’s concluding chapter sets out the frightening prospect of a complete fragmentation of state education, with the hundreds of existing academies perhaps soon to be joined by the thousands of church schools that may come on board to protect their privileges. She asks if people will “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?”
Referring to campaigns against new Academy conversions being fought right across the country, she raises the hope that there can be a “counter-revolution, spreading up from the new privatised classrooms of the twenty-first century, demanding a return to first principles on the purpose and methods of our children’s education”. However, she seems pessimistic that such a response will only follow after impending defeat, and that, for now, “the game might well be up”. Is Benn being unduly pessimistic or making a realistic assessment of the balance of forces?
The lack of a workers’ party to challenge the neo-liberal consensus is certainly a weakness. But shouldn’t anti-academy campaigners be standing in local elections to provide such a challenge just as trade unionists successfully stood in the elections to School Boards?
What about trade union and community action? Individual school campaigns have scored some successes but many schools have converted to academy status with only limited opposition. The rapid speed of conversion and inadequate consultation allowed under the new legislation have certainly presented real difficulties.
The NUT hopes it can regroup around a remaining ‘bulwark’ of schools that will stand firm against academisation. Certainly, if the budgetary ‘bribes’ dry up, the benefits of academy conversion will be less obvious to school governors.
A new battlefront will open up in opposition to the ‘forced’ conversions of schools that have failed to meet floor targets. Unlike the ‘voluntary’ conversions, there is much greater potential for a joint campaign by governors, heads, staff and parents in opposing an Academy and also to organise co-ordinated strike action across affected schools.
A reassessment of campaigning strategy is certainly needed. The arguments so clearly set down in Melissa Benn’s book can certainly help to build that anti-academy movement.

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