Melissa Benn

Archive for the ‘Guardian article’ Category

Below, my piece in today’s Guardian Comment page on the sudden demotion of Michael Gove.

One could hear the gasps echoing around the political world yesterday morning. Gove demoted to the whips’ office? Unthinkable.

Or was it? For experienced Gove watchers, there were a few signs in the air. At last month’s Wellington College festival of education, I sat with more than 1,000 people in a marquee waiting for the secretary of state. This was the minister’s natural habitus, an annual jamboree of new-right education reformers sponsored by his old employer the Sunday Times and hosted by a key Gove ally, Anthony Seldon.

But the minister was well over an hour late. And the crowd was getting restless. Gove was apparently stuck in traffic – a poor excuse for a man who is driven everywhere, but an indication perhaps of his less impressive qualities: accident-prone, a touch hapless, careless – even of his most loyal following.

It didn’t help that so many of Gove’s policies were beginning to fray at the edges. Once hailed as the democratic vehicle of parent power, too many free schools have got into a shabby sort of trouble over the last year. The evidence on sponsored academies, the supposed “silver bullet” for school improvement, has also worn thin, thanks largely to the diligent research of my Local Schools Network colleague Henry Stewart. Only this week, it was acknowledged in the high court that results at academies are frequently swollen by vocational equivalents that the minister himself long ago repudiated…

Red the rest of the piece here.

Harry’s Last Stand by Harry Leslie Smith and Austerity Bites by Mary O’Hara – my latest review in the Guardian.

Right now, some inventive literary festival programmer is probably trying to set up a staged discussion between Harry Leslie Smith and Mary O’Hara. If not, they should – it would be fascinating. Smith, a mere 91 years of age, is boiling with anger at what he sees as the UK’s return to the indignities of his Great Depression childhood. O’Hara, an experienced reporter, brings a cool head to her story of the impact of the cuts over the last four years.

Yet for all the difference in age, experience and literary voice, these writers, both of whom began their lives in poverty, speak of remarkably similar things. And both books add to a mounting body of work on the growing economic divide in modern Britain: “an emergency”, according to Smith, “as dire as the economic crisis of 1933″.

Only a few pages in, I decided that the best way to read his unusually structured book was to approach it as a kind of epic poem, one that moves in circular fashion from passionate denunciation to intense autobiographical reflection. Smith’s early childhood – he grew up in Yorkshire in the 1930s – was one of almost Dickensian deprivation: his older sister Marion died aged 10 of tuberculosis in Barnsley’s old workhouse, and his unemployed miner father of alcoholism and loneliness. Wartime service in the RAF at least brought Smith regular meals and a reliable wage, and he met his German wife, Friede, in the ravages of postwar Berlin. The couple moved to Canada where moderate economic prosperity and ordinary family contentment rescued him from the bitterness of his early years.

In a manner suggestive of Ken Loach’s magisterial 2013 film The Spirit of ’45, Smith sees the postwar era, in particular the creation of the welfare state, as Britain’s finest moment, a compact between industry and labour, the middle and working classes, destroyed a half-century or more later by neoliberal economics and unrestrained finance capital. (Unlike Loach, he also puts a bit of the blame on what he sees as the over-mighty trade unionism of the 70s.) All hope of greater equality or genuine democracy is now being swept away, here and in the US, by greedy corporations, the heedless tax-evading rich and near-corrupt governments, who “act like acolytes from a cult who worship profits over common sense”. This has returned the UK to the landscape of his childhood, in which “food poverty, like a tidal flood, has begun to encroach upon both city and suburban dwellers”.

In one particularly depressing scene, he describes being picked up at the airport, on a return visit to Yorkshire, by a distant cousin who takes him on a tour of Halifax, where Smith spent his later childhood. As they drive the roads in drizzling rain, jet-lagged Smith is made gloomy by the dire economic plight of the town and his cousin’s Ukip-style rantings about immigrants.

Smith’s book may be more overtly political and emotional, but O’Hara’s lucid account of a year-long trip around austerity Britain left me reeling and somehow more ashamed. A reasonably well-informed citizen will have most of the jigsaw pieces to hand: the mean-spirited “bedroom tax”; the increased number of food banks; the dramatic reduction in local government budgets and public sector jobs; the punitive sanctions on job seekers in a labour market short even of insecure, poorly paid work; a battery of new tests for disabled people; and the erosion of legal aid.

O’Hara clarifies this jumble of privations in several significant ways. She never loses sight of human beings, too easily buried beneath the rubble of official acronyms and policy speak. There is a chapter devoted to the emotional fallout of austerity: the loss of identity, self-hatred, multiple suicide attempts and sheer hopelessness of those marooned without income or work – or any future prospect of either.

Petty applications of new benefit rules mean claimants risk losing already meagre sums for four weeks, 13 weeks or, “if it happens a third time”, for as long as three years. One job seeker tells O’Hara: “You’re five minutes late for your appointment, you show the adviser your watch, which is running late, but you still get sanctioned for a month.” Another says: “It’s Christmas Day and you don’t fill in your job search evidence form to show that you’ve looked for all the new jobs that are advertised on Christmas Day. You are sanctioned. Merry Christmas.” The devastation wreaked on the disabled, thousands of whom face up to six separate welfare cuts by 2015, has been, says the usually understated O’Hara, “jaw-dropping”.

By the end, she makes a convincing case that the coalition has in effect prosecuted a callous four-year “war on the weakest” in our society. You can’t help but share in her icy judgments of Cameron, Osborne, Gove and co, and particularly the hapless work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith, who didn’t even turn up for the parliamentary debate on the bedroom tax in November 2013. Tory high jinks during that same debate, with one MP pretending to nod off and another making jokes about the name of the tax, suggested too many MPs have become out of touch with common decency, let alone with vast parts of the country.

O’Hara also helpfully dissects the ways in which a Benefits Street-style political narrative has made welfare so much more publicly unpopular. Alarmist references to the size of the benefits bill fail to make clear that the figure also includes pensions and subsidies for the working poor; the extent of welfare fraud is vastly overstated; the much publicised, and apparently reasonable, “cap” of £26,000 punishes large families and saves relatively little money in overall terms; government press releases make continual use of emotive phrases such as “dependence”, “entrenched” and “addiction”.

Without robust enough challenge from either the compliant Liberal Democrats or the official opposition, the state has been slashed. Meanwhile, the official narrative has subtly shifted from deficit-cutting necessity and “We’re all in it together”, to a leaner, meaner state – oh, and let’s kick out the Romanian hordes.

What’s keeping people afloat are the remnants of the state and the real Big, but now Battered, Society: what’s left of voluntary and community action, and the numerous activist campaigns that have sprung up in recent years. Even so, such is the level of distrust and anger among large parts of the population, O’Hara warns, that a rerun of the 2011 riots is entirely possible.

Both books, but particularly O’Hara’s, should be required reading for every MP, peer, councillor, civil servant and commentator. The fury and sense of powerlessness that so many people feel at government policy beam out of every page.

• To order Harry’s Last Stand for £9.74 (RRP £12.99) and Austerity Bites for £15.99 (RRP £19.99) with free UK p&p call Guardian book service on 0330 333 6846 or go to guardianbookshop.co.uk

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.

Below – a post I have written on the Local Schools Network today on the implications of Gove’s new O-level style proposals:

What with the GCSE regrading fiasco and the row over the selling off of state school sports fields, Michael Gove clearly needed a quick political fix – and some positive publicity – this autumn. And he has got it – if from all the wrong people.

Meanwhile, the nation’s hard-working pupils – many of them now embarking on GCSE courses that the government has more or less officially rubbished – deserve far more than these ill-thought-through changes, and yet more upheaval, in the form of the new O-level proposals, which will officially be known as “the English Baccalaureate Certificate”.

As the incisive head teacher and blogger Geoff Barton asked last night, ” Why would we want to call an English qualification a baccalaureate, especially when it shares so few features with the principles and ideals of the international baccalaureate?’

It is hard not to see this reform as Gove and the hapless Lib Dems playing politics with our schools system. Tabloid headlines have predictably enough hailed an end to “dumbing down” and a “return to rigour”. But what has been pushed as a bold new reform is neither new nor particularly bold. An exam at 16 that all can take, distinguishing the so-called academic and not-so academic in its gradation of difficulty, and its marking scheme? In many ways, that sounds pretty similar to our current GCSEs – although details emerging about the practical implications of the new qualification suggest that a significant number of children will never take it, or take it later than their peers. How can anyone consider a reform that could lead to the potential failure of up to 40% of children ( according to some estimates) progress, let alone progressive?

Very few commentators have yet raised the important question of the revised secondary curriculum that will inevitably underpin the new exams. Gove has always made clear his preference for a more traditionalist, linear curriculum but judging from the disastrous progress of the revised primary curriculum, still incomplete, he may face an even bigger problem with prescriptive new ideas for secondary schools ( none of which will apply to the mushrooming number of academies and free schools.)

Don’t forget: two of the members of the expert panel, on the primary curriculum, resigned from their posts last autumn, and one senior academic Andrew Pollard, spoke out publicly against the “prescriptive” nature of the proposals, which risked generating a sense of “widespread failure” among the nation’s primary schoolchildren. The appointment of Elizabeth Truss as minister in charge of curriculum and qualifications – rather than the more broad-minded David Laws – suggests that a rigid traditionalism will continue to dominate the department’s thinking.

But the real story of yesterday’s announcement is that, once again, a major opportunity for genuine, progressive reform and necessary modernisation has been lost. With the school leaving age soon to be raised to 18, our system must now successfully educate pupils with a wide range of interests and abilities. The case for a massively expensive exam at 16 – once the school-leaving certificate – is no longer proven.

Meanwhile, the international evidence on what makes a modern, stimulating curriculum – from the development of speaking skills to the encouragement of teamwork, in addition to specified subject knowledge – is being rejected in favour of an old-fashioned series of tests, in a narrow range of ‘academic’ subjects, that will surely turn off the majority of students long before they come to sit the 50s-style do-or-die exam.

There has been discussion on this site today of the importance of poorer children having access to a more academic suite of qualifications. A good comprehensive school/ system would ensure this; what it wouldn’t do, in the way that Gove’s qualifications almost certainly will, is ban any child from access to learning in these key areas if they are unable to approach the subjects in question in an old fashioned academic style. A modern curriculum should be broad and balanced, but it should also allow for teachers to approach subject teaching – and assessment of student progress – in a more nuanced, individualised way.

The Tomlinson proposals of 2004 still represent a good starting point for thinking about an alternative approach to our education system, not least in the report’s emphasis on “evolution not revolution” regarding any major reform, including widespread consultation and trialling before implementation; whereas it looks like consultation on this reform will be fairly meaningless. ( Geoff Barton again: “Isn’t the lack of consultation with the teaching profession a critical weakness? Can’t you see that without teacher goodwill it will be difficult to impose an examination that will work?”)

And with its emphasis on a mix of academic and vocational learning, more project-based assessment, and greater opportunities for “stretch” for abler students, the Tomlinson report was far more in step with successful systems around the world than Gove’s backward-looking vision. Much of the derision of project-based school work misses the point. The problem with the current GCSE model is not that it involves coursework per se, or that pushy parents can get in on the act, but that, as part of a high stakes accountability system for both school and child, these projects too easily become part of the deadly exam factory mentality.

Next month at the London Festival of Education, Pasi Sahlberg, the director of the ministry for education in Finland, one of the most successful systems in the world, will challenge UK educators to ditch our reliance “on external standardised assessment instead of … school-based, teacher-led continuous assessment.”

This is not just common sense. It is vital for the future equity of our system. As the OECD reminded us only this week, the UK continues to have one of the most segregated school systems in the world. As our education system further fragments – the untrumpeted part of the coalition reforms – this new set of exams will merely increase success for some, at the expense of the many.

Let’s end with Geoff Barton for a third and final time. “Any chance someone – anyone – could do a bit more work on all of this, so that we can see beyond the flummery and have some proposals fit for the twenty-first century?”


This is an expanded version of an article that first appeared on the Guardian Comment is Free website on Monday September 17th.

Below, my latest piece in Guardian education…..

Michael Russell, cabinet secretary for education in the SNP government, who declared himself ‘stunned’ at recently announced English plans to allow unqualified teachers into classrooms. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod
Last week, a British education minister spoke eloquently of the necessity of a highly qualified teaching profession, free university learning and the vital importance of public education as a “societal, not just an individual, good”.

No, Michael Gove has not had a radical change of heart over the summer break. The minister in question was Michael Russell, cabinet secretary for education in the SNP government. He and I were sharing a platform at a packed session at this year’s Edinburgh book festival on “the value of education”, with many cogent and passionate contributions from leading academics and educationalists.

Read on

It is amazing how quickly you can discourage a nation. Just 18 months ago, Michael Gove kicked off his controversial tenure at the Department for Education with apparently definitive claims, backed by international test evidence, of UK state school failure and the need for a radical new approach.

Last year, Sweden was the model for reform. The government barely mentions Sweden these days, not since it emerged that its free schools produce marginally improved results, but increased social segregation. Now the emphasis has shifted to America, another mediocre international performer, yet already proving a dangerous template for aggressive fast-paced reform over here.

Most people have heard of the American charter schools, which currently educate over one and a half million children, but few understand the conditions under which their highly partial success occurs or what their impact is. Nor do they grasp what their equivalents here in England — academies and free schools — could mean for our education system in the long term.

The model goes something like this: a set of new schools, apparently dedicated to radically improved education of the poor, is set up in competition to existing public provision. Heavily backed by corporate or philanthropic interests, with some working on a “for profit” basis, they are reliant on high-stakes results, strict discipline, a punitive approach to teachers and unions, and tend to have more control over their admissions, higher rates of exclusion, and to take fewer students with special needs or those for whom English is not their first language.

Meanwhile, public (state) schools, many suffering toxic spending cuts, drowning in often unjustified public and political criticism, must continue to educate anyone who comes through their gates, making the alternative new model look shinier still. Yet many still provide an outstanding education, particularly in deprived areas. Sound familiar?

One of the most high-profile critics of charter schools is Diane Ravitch, a former assistant secretary of state for education under George W Bush, who is now fighting against the role of choice, high-stakes testing and the dominance of massive corporations in US education, all of which, she believes, are damaging to the concept of universal quality public education.

It was interesting to watch the softly spoken Ravitch in debate recently with Geoffrey Canada, the charismatic chief executive of the Harlem Children’s Zone, the most high-profile charter network, eulogised in the 2010 pro-charter documentary Waiting For Superman.

HCZ offers a stern, test-driven education to a select few. As Canada admitted, part of HCZ’s success lies in turfing out those students who don’t make the grade. Its impressive cradle-to-college social support system, underwritten by billions of dollars of private funding, is not replicable on a national scale.

Other charter networks are much less successful. According to the authoritative 2009 Stanford Credo study, 17% outperform public schools, 46% show no difference and 37% get lower results.

There are worrying parallels with the way things are developing here. We are seeing the rapid growth of private interests in education, with some of the more effective chains granted significant influence in national educational debate. Here, too, we are presented with “miracle academies” but a range of unanswered questions about admissions, exclusions, sources of additional funding and pedagogy.

Here, too, our system is being torn up at its foundations, yet there is only a mixed picture of improvement. According to the latest Ofsted report, the proportion of academies judged good or outstanding is similar to that for all secondary schools.

Yet Gove’s “quiet revolution” continues unabated. Under the new Education Act, only academies and free schools can now be set up. No new community schools. Many maintained schools continue to be under intense pressure to become academies. Some governors report being asked to special briefings on the achievements of the US charter school model, followed up by invitations to join one of the new educational chains.

Longer term, these developments risk pitting school against school, easing the way for for-profit providers into a key public service, alienating many teachers and undermining across-the-board educational progress. Surely we have learned by now not to blindly follow the US into unproven and expensive policy disasters?

This column was first published in The Guardian

Check out this piece for the Guardian’s comment page tomorrow – but published already – on the move among today’s students towards apprenticeships.

How do we make our schools fit to face the 21st century?
Five experts explore the future of British education in this round-table discussion, as the government initiative for free schools is launched

The panel: Guy Claxton, Sue Street, Melissa Benn, Rachel Wolf and Peter Hyman. Photograph: Antonio Olmos For The Observer/ Antonio Olmos
The Observer panel, chaired by Yvonne Roberts: Guy Claxton, professor of learning sciences; Sue Street, inner city school teacher; Melissa Benn, journalist and campaigner; Rachel Wolf, education adviser; Peter Hyman, teacher and former political strategist. Read the rest of this entry »

Some of my recent articles, largely debating the issues that arise out of School Wars.

New Statesman: round up of left thinkers’ views on the riots and family values

Prospect magazine: debate with Rachel Wolf, director of the New Schools Network, on the merits or otherwise of free schools.

Financial Times: commentary on Toby Young piece on the free school he has set up in West London.

Guardian piece on recent riots: and further debate on the issues in the main paper and in G2


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