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Towards the fragments

David Lister applauds Melissa Benn's response to Gove's attack on the comprehensive system

Melissa Benn has written a timely, useful and highly readable account of issues around education in Britain from the end of the Second World War up to the present day. She concludes with some thoughts about what can be done to develop a better, more equitable approach for the future. My only real criticism is that, whilst she rightly presents a positive picture of the achievements of many of our comprehensive schools, she glosses over, indeed ignores, some of the problems that real schools face, such as drug-taking and bullying, particularly in the inner city. Nevertheless, the point she strongly insists upon, that the tendency of communicators is to denigrate state schools and ignore their achievements, is worth making.

An important theme running through this book is inequality of provision. The 1944 Education Act established a tripartite system of grammar, secondary modern and technical schools, which survived in most places until the 1970s, in some places until the present time, although it has been the grammar/secondary modern divide that has generally prevailed. The result was to split communities and sometimes even families. Working class children could be ostracised for going to a ‘posh' school. Around 80% of children were deemed to have ‘failed' at the age of 11, much potential was lost. Benn regards the idea that an important segment of working-class youth was able to achieve social mobility as a result of this system as largely a myth. Selection broke down partially because some middle-class children inevitably ended up ‘failing' and support for it dwindled. She quotes Simon Jenkins as saying that the Tories probably lost the 1964 election partially because of it. Leading Tories subsequently became convinced that they should follow Labour's conversion to the comprehensive principle and, the rate at which grammar schools were put to the sword increased when Margaret Thatcher became Education Secretary in the Heath government.

Following this is coverage of some familiar ground regarding the changes that the Tories introduced through legislation piloted by Joseph, Baker and Patten: national curriculum, league tables, local management of schools etc. Only grant-maintained schools and the assisted places scheme were reversed by New Labour, arguably to be replaced by much worse over time.

The readability of this book is enhanced by descriptions of the visits that the author made to a number of schools such as Wellington College, Eton, Mossborne Academy and Manchester Enterprise Academy. There is a substantial section on private schools, which she points out Labour governments have never challenged. Yet they cream off around 7% of pupils from more privileged background, who end up gaining a highly disproportionate amount of places at the ‘elite' (Russell Group) universities.

As Melissa Benn says in her introduction: ‘secondary transfer is one of the key ways in which class identity is formed in modern Britain...It is startling how many of the middle-class, happy to support all-in primary schools, depart from comprehensive education at secondary level'. She is also profoundly distrustful of the concept of parental choice. Poor families cannot choose private education or the ‘shadowy world' of tutoring that propels children into selective grammar schools.

She also makes some important points about the incursion of the private sector into the education system more generally. We are familiar with the role of private companies in sponsoring the ‘old' academies and their potential role in running free schools. What is not so often discussed, but Benn raises here, is their incursion into educational provision. All sorts of services from the leasing of photocopiers and IT systems to improvement advisory services, which were delivered in the past by Local Authorities, are now often contracted out to private sector companies.

We then come to New Labour. I endorse the author's view that there is a balance to be struck between positive measures such as the introduction of Sure Start, Building Schools for the Future and the undoubted raising of standards and the more questionable measures such as the excessive emphasis on testing or the introduction of new categories of schools.

No such mixed message for the Coalition. It is all regressive and fragmentary. In particular there has been a massive expansion of the academies programme and the introduction of ‘free schools'. There is no longer even a pretence that academies will only be launched in more deprived areas. Firstly, all schools deemed to be outstanding by Ofsted were encouraged by the government to apply for academy status. Then the offer was extended. For the first time primary and special schools were included in the invitation. Benn makes the point that there is very little evidence that academies raise standards generally, although some have undoubtedly been very successful. She quotes from a report by the Centre for Economic Performance that ‘overall these changes in GCSE performance in academies relative to matched schools are statistically indistinguishable'. Some abuses are outlined. Cognita is a company founded by the notorious Chris Woodhead and associates. Parents at Southbank International School accused Cognita of turning their school into a ‘money-making machine', taking £3million profit from the school in 2010, having 'cynically underpaid staff'. Whistleblowers stated that another academy provider, E-ACT's directors claimed thousands of pounds of public money to pay for nights at luxury hotels and long-distance taxi rides.

Secretary of State Michael Gove's scheme for his new academies to ‘top slice' LA spending means that those schools that remain in the LA fold and the LA itself are being deprived of funding. Since this book was written it has been reported (Times Educational Supplement, 26 August) that LA funding is likely to be reduced by £1 billion over the next two years because the government massively underestimated the number of schools that would convert to academy status. Peter Davies, vice-president of the Liberal Democrat Education Association was quoted that the new academies were being over-funded. “It's effectively a bribe to make the government's policy look successful”.

As for the free schools, Benn casts doubt on the examples that have inspired this policy. There have been an increasing number of statements from Swedish educationists that their model of free schools, which the Tories have drawn on, has led to greater inequality, creaming off children from more affluent families. The performance of Swedish schools in general has suffered as a result, as can be shown by a decline in relation to the measured performance of other countries, for which evidence is provided. The success of the American Charter school movement, which has also inspired Mr Gove, has also been called into question. Melissa Benn also pours scorn on the Tory idea that free schools could be established in locations such as empty shops or offices and points out that more than half of the first group of free schools were established in some of this country's least deprived areas. A headteacher in Suffolk is quoted as saying that “the suspicion is that parents in that (free school) group don't want their children mixing with oiks. Whatever the motivation, the impact is to create division”.

What about the Liberal Democrats? Our author draws a picture of Sarah Teather, a junior LibDem education minister, sitting uncomfortably on the front bench as the programme for the expansion of academies and the launching of free schools, both of which her party opposed in the general election campaign, were unfolded. She also pours some cold water on the international comparisons that the Tories have used to underpin their approach. Countries like Finland and South Korea, whose achievements Gove cites with approval, have non-selective education systems and much more equal societies than we have.

There is also an important discussion around pupil admissions. Benn sees the Coalition's abolition of local admission forums as a retrograde step. The ability of local authorities to plan pupil admission in their area has been grotesquely undermined by the expansion of the academy programme and the launch of free schools. ‘Take away the democratic elements of school planning and you are left with widespread anarchy...you get a series of mini-fiefdoms controlled by powerful interests...'

In terms of a blueprint for the future, if you look back over my past articles on education in Chartist you will find a real resonance with what Melissa Benn proposes here. Every school a good school obviously; balanced intakes through banding, a richer more creative curriculum; teachers who are reflective and trusted; teacher assessment rather than national testing. I am unconvinced by her argument for elected school boards. She does not consider the role of school governing bodies, whose composition can equate to what she is advocating and many of whose members are either directly elected or appointed by elected bodies, apart from in the old academies.

It would be very difficult and probably unwise for an incoming Labour government to reverse all the changes that have occurred and I suspect that it would not consider abolishing private schools. It could at the very least do more to support Local Authorities and maintained schools. As the New Labour programme declared: ‘Every Child Matters'

SCHOOL WARS: The Battle for Britain's Education, Melissa Benn (Verso, £12.99)