Melissa Benn

Archive for the ‘School Wars’ Category

Below, my column in Education Guardian today.

A few weeks ago this newspaper published a piece by Sarah Vine, Daily Mail columnist and wife of the education secretary, Micheal Gove, explaining why they had decided to send their daughter to a London state school.

It was a funny and lively article, and I agreed with just about every word. I was particularly drawn to Vine’s argument about the importance of educating students with very different interests and talents alongside one another, her belief that state schools produce more rounded, socially open citizens and her surprisingly robust criticism of the exclusivity and excessive competition of so much of the private sector.

Yet as time has gone on, Vine’s article has unsettled me. Why? Am I being irrational or ungenerous, unable to welcome even the spouse of an uncompromising Tory frontbencher over to “our” side of the educational divide?

Read the rest of the article here.

Below, my latest piece in Guardian Comment, on education’s growing culture of overwork, and how it is affecting children and parents.

Do you know a ghost child? Are you possibly raising one? A report this week by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) pinpoints a worrying new phenomenon – the institutionalised infant, a whey-faced creature, stuck in school for 10 hours a day, the child of commuting parents possibly, wandering from playground to desk to after-school club without real purpose, nodding off through boredom and fatigue.

The sad thing is, as yet another timely ATL report brings home, the ghost child is increasingly likely to be taught by the ghost adult – a teacher grey with fatigue and stress, stuck at school for 10 hours or more a day, wandering from duty to duty in playground, classroom or after-school club. Both, it seems, are part of a culture that increasingly overworks our citizens, from a younger and younger age, in the often fruitless quest for job security and social mobility.

Read the rest of the article here.

If you didn’t catch it the first time, you might be interested now?

School Wars: The Battle for Britain’s Education

The story of the struggle for Britain’s schools, and a passionate call for education as a public good.
School Wars tells the story of the struggle for Britain’s education system. Established during the 1960s and based on the progressive ideal of good schools for all, the comprehensive system has over the past decades come under sustained attack from successive governments.

From the poorest comprehensives to the most well-resourced independent schools, School Wars takes a forensic look at the inequalities of our current system, the damaging impact of spending cuts, the rise of “free schools” and the growth of the private sector in education. Melissa Benn explores, too, the dangerous example of US education reform, where privatization, punitive accountability and the rise of charter schools have intensified social, economic and ethnic divisions.

The policies of successive British governments have been muddled and confused, but one thing is clear: that the relentless application of market principles signals a fundamental shift from the ideal of quality education as a public good, to education as market-controlled commodity. Benn ends by outlining some key principles for restoring strong educational values within a fair, non-selective public education system.

And here are some of the reviews:

“In this polemic, Benn sets herself up as a one-woman commission of inquiry, analyzing the social, political, and financial case for comprehensive schooling in a climate of spending cuts and a culture of privatization.”
– The Times
“This is a tremendous book. It is a passionate polemic about the most important policy divide of the day … It is powerful but also reasonably argued … [and] marks her out as one of Britain’s foremost advocates of comprehensive education.”
– Anthony Seldon, Observer
“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.”
– Phil Beadle, Independent
“An exceptionally well-informed, cogent, and spirited account of the debates over secondary education in Britain.”
– Stefan Collini, Nation
“If you read just one book on education this year, then make sure it’s School Wars by Melissa Benn. Brilliantly researched and compellingly written.”
– Roy Blatchford, Director of the National Education Trust

For more reviews and discussion of the themes of the book, please go to Verso’s website.

Here is an edited version of a speech I recently gave on educational equality at the Goldsmiths conference on Teaching and Learning, Future Tense. Graphics are courtesy of my creative and often hilarious colleague, Francis Gilbert.

Over the last eight months, I have been taking the arguments in my book School Wars around the country, talking to parents, teachers, heads in maintained schools: local authority leaders; private, grammar, academy and faith school heads and staff; and many students. I have learned an enormous amount from these discussions about the strengths and divides of our current system and the impact that Coalition policy is having on our schools.

Last week the New Statesman published my edited diary style account of some of these discussions. There is so much I had to miss out…never mind. This gives readers a flavour….


Upcoming event

‘Government education reforms will lead to a lack of accountability and greater inequality’, Melissa Benn will say at the forthcoming ‘School Wars’ debate.

The debate takes place in Islington on Thursday 9 February and is being organised by the National Education Trust, the leading education charity. It will be led by Melissa Benn, author of ‘School Wars’, with responses from Sally Coates, Principal of Burlington Danes Academy and Roy Blatchford, Founding Director of the National Education Trust.

The event will be chaired by Fiona Millar.

Melissa Benn commented:

‘Michael Gove has set a revolution in train, in the name of radical improvement of state education. But nothing is quite as it seems with the Coalition’s school reforms.  

In the name of autonomy and freedom, the government has gathered to itself unprecedented powers. Local authorities are being drained of funds and key powers, only to be replaced by democratically unaccountable providers, including the powerful educational chains.

Grammar schools are set to expand even though the correlation between selection and inequality is now well proven.

My fear? A return to a version of the failed 1944 settlement, this time via the market not the state’. 

Roy Blatchford, Founding Director of the National Education Trust, said:

The National Education Trust has for some time been a leading platform for critical debate about today’s key education issues, so we are delighted to be staging this timely event.

I look forward to hearing – and perhaps challenging – Melissa Benn’s version of ‘market versus state’.

Notes for Editors

The media are invited to attend School Wars at New North Community School and Children’s Centre, 32 Popham Road, London N1 8SJ on Thursday 9 February (1.00-4.00pm). Please use the contact details below to book a place.

The National Education Trust is an independent charitable foundation dedicated to 
the promotion and sharing of excellent practice and innovation in education. More information can be found on our website: http://www.nationaleducationtrust.net
 
To book a place, contact events@nationaleducatipontrust.net or book online:

http://www.nationaleducationtrust.net/events_BookOnline.php

Ends

I love the look of this website and the interesting people they interview and talk about. I was interviewed by them over a series of weeks – via e-mail – which has now appeared. I wasn’t sure if it would work but it really does – in part, because with each question addressed separately, both question and answer has a freshness and energy to it that you don’t always get in traditional exchanges, where everybody gets tired and tails off towards the end!

I also love the picture they use which has what appears to be a teenage Carla Bruni loitering at the back. Obviously not….but then again….. or maybe it’s just me…..

Of all the reviews so far of School Wars, I am most pleased with this one, in The Nation magazine, by Stefan Collini. It’s an incredibly thoughtful and informative discussion of the state of UK education as well as of my book. Stefan and I will be in discussion at the Cambridge Word Fest later this month on the current state of secondary and higher education.

Open Democracy has launched an interesting new series on social exclusion, and how to further economic inclusion. I kick the series off with an article on the relationship between economic and educational inequality – and how a different school system might promote great parity between students.

The media has been obsessed this week with what position Stephen Twigg, the new secretary of state for education, will take on free schools. While Twigg was probably unwise to give interviews on such a controversial policy within days of being appointed to the post, his latest, more considered, view on the matter seems largely sensible.

I would take issue with his sweeping claim that ‘parents know that the real difference to their child getting ahead is not what is painted on the sign outside the school, but what happens inside the classroom.’. Obviously, the issues of selection/admissions and funding are crucial to the success of a school and its pupils. But it was ever thus……

Meanwhile, in a fascinating exchange on the Local Schools Network concerning the example of the charter school/free school experiment in America, leading free school supporter and founder Toby Young, who had enjoyed taunting Twigg this week, came clean on the policy’s true objective: to allow schools to fail. It is only by letting schools open and close, Young claims, that we can truly learn what kind of innovation works.

Well, I can save Toby years of market based experimentation, with all the disappointment and failure it will bring to generations of students. We already know what makes schools successful. While the majority of the US’s charter schools do not improve on public (state) schools performance, those that do have millions of philanthropically sourced extra money poured into them. Fine, perhaps, if you are living and learning in the Harlem Children’s Zone where cradle to college investment is so impressive; too bad if you are at one of the rogue US charter schools where you will mainly learn about the perils of an unregulated, market based approach.

There’s nothing new in all this. Keith Joseph was singing the praises of bankruptcy in relation to the public services decades ago. For him too, human capital takes low priority in such a schema.

Still, we should be grateful to Toby for so baldly setting out the fundamental objectives of current education policy. The Coalition does not dare.


Welcome to my website. I am a writer, novelist and campaigner. Follow the link below to my latest book. Join the conversation on Twitter. Or comment on this blog......

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