The education debate — School Wars

Melissa Benn reports over eight months from the front line in the battle for Britain’s education.

Melissa Benn reports over eight months from the front line in the battle for Britain’s education.

In September 2011, Melissa Benn published "School Wars: the Battle for Britain's Education", an examination of the UK's school system and a passionate defence of the comprehensive ideal.

Tracing the history of British education from 1944 onwards, the book analyses the ambivalence of successive governments, Labour and Tory, towards comprehensive reform, leading to the current "marketisation" of education. Benn argues that at the heart of the "Gove revolution" is the demolition of the role of democratically elected local organisations and their replacement with unaccountable charitable and private bodies, increasingly organised into chains. In the months after its publication, Benn took the book and its arguments out to a wider public. Here, we publish a diary of her own school wars . . .

August 2011 Back from holiday, geared up for the usual trials of publication, and then some. Such is the polarised landscape around education that a book defending the gains of the comprehensive movement and arguing for more resources and less selection is bound to make a large part of the nation - and the media - see red, particularly as the first batch of free schools is about to open. The C-word has become a dirty word over the past decades; class anxiety and ambition still strongly shape our school system. Yet the top-performing systems around the world - those of Finland and South Korea, for example - are non-selective.

I am a little surprised to find the Guardian's education editor, Jeevan Vasagar, take to Twitter to denounce an article I have written, in his own paper, on the continuing inequalities in our education system as "incoherent and despairing". The civil servant Sam Freedman, policy adviser to Michael Gove, jumps in to agree with him. Aren't civil servants supposed to retain a degree of political impartiality?

September 2011 Gove defends free schools in the London Evening Standard, describing the "principal opponents" of the policy as "Tony Benn's daughter, the Hon Melissa Benn, and Alastair Campbell's partner, Fiona Millar . . . well-connected media types from London's most privileged circles". This is a bit rich. What two middle-aged men, with years of political, journalistic and campaigning experience between them, would be described solely in relation to their mothers and wives? As for Gove, an intimate ally of Rupert Murdoch, claiming that it is his critics who are part of the privileged media establishment, well, that's laughable.

As the first free schools open, most news­papers follow the government line that they are an important, socially just innovation. I wonder. How much are they a conscience-salve for the many editors and columnists who have educated their children privately and are now glad to support pseudo-private institutions such as Toby Young's West London Free School, with its Latin mottos and teachers in flowing black gowns? Free schools hand over precious funding at a time of austerity to an unproven and suspiciously inegalitarian social experiment.

Over the months, I engage in reasonably good-tempered debates with everyone from Robert McCartney QC, chairman of the National Grammar Schools Association, to Anthony Seldon, 13th Master of Wellington College. Odd, then, that a cosy-sounding lunchtime "seminar" at the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) in the City of London turns out to be my most difficult meeting yet. Under its chief executive, Matthew Taylor, a former adviser to Tony Blair at No 10, the genteel arts organisation sponsors a number of academies. The RSA has invited me to debate my case publicly with Lucy Heller, managing director of Ark, one of the more successful academy chains and a charitable schools provider set up by hedge-fund millionaires.

Heller is an interesting character, committed to the comprehensive cause, if under the acad­emies rubric. I lay out my concerns about the lack of democratic accountability in the academy and free school movements, including the whopping sums earned by some at the top of the new chains, such as the former schools commissioner Bruce Liddington, who was reputed to earn £280,000-plus as the head of the schools chain E-Act. I express concern at the emerging "two-tier" local ecology of schools, similar to the charter school movement in the US, which has been so damaging to the public (state) school system there.

Heller argues that academies are the best way to improve poorer children's results and then rather strangely uses the (rapidly improving) results at my daughters' community school to construct her anti-comprehensive case. Francis Beckett, education writer and New Statesman contributor, cancels his RSA subscription later that afternoon in protest at the personal tenor of the attacks on me from both Heller and the audience. It is certainly an odd experience to be barracked by Tory Westminster councillors implying that they are the true guardians of educational quality. Anyone remember the shocking state of our schools in the 1980s and early to mid-1990s?

October 2011 In Bristol, a packed event at the city's Watershed centre. Bristol is one of the most educationally divided of our cities, with large numbers of private schools and many shiny new academies that have not solved the class and ethnic divides. It now has a free school, largely for the benefit of families in a relatively affluent postcode. The head of a local comprehensive, who is already losing students to the new free school, sits listening quietly.

Later, I arrive with minutes to spare at a library in Newham, crowded with east London parents and teachers. The former children's laureate Michael Rosen is brilliantly fluent on the political meaning of school architecture, which he links back to the panopticon structure of 19th-century prisons. There's food for thought here. Many academies are built with no staffrooms, reinforcing the reduced bargaining power of teachers and the assault on teachers' unions that characterises the new, privatised landscape. I often get emails from teachers who are disturbed by the authoritarian and closed cultures - and impossible targets - within the new schools.

After an evening discussion at the Ilkley Playhouse, parents and governors approach me, furious at plans to convert the successful local comprehensive into an academy despite the opposition of almost all "stakeholders".

The government likes to suggest that schools are converting for the benefits of more autonomy and freedom. Not so, a governor at a highly successful comprehensive in London facing conversion tells me. The main reason for taking academy status? It's the money, stupid. "There are no freedoms that we need, nothing we couldn't really do before . . ."

November 2011 SchoolDuggery, an independent education blog, analyses the proportion of children on free school meals in 23 of the 24 new free schools. What a surprise - it is little over half the national average and, contrary to explicit government claims that free schools have been set up to "support the very poorest pupils", SchoolDuggery finds that, overall, these schools are "not taking a fair proportion of more deprived children".
I go to a debate at the Bishopsgate Institute on a curriculum for the 21st century, chaired by my Twitter friend Jeevan Vasagar. I work hard to appear cheerful but am amused to hear the sociologist Frank Furedi, formerly a star columnist of Living Marxism, put forward very similar arguments to Gove: poor children need knowledge, not soft skills. Who ever said they didn't? And why can't they develop both?

January 2012 Round two of a Woman's Hour debate with Anne McElvoy of the Economist, who likes to claim that comprehensive education was imposed by Stalinist diktat on an unwilling nation by previous Labour governments. Nonsense. It was massed parental revolt that led to the phasing out of the grammars. The issue lost the Tories the 1964 election, which is why they have never dared publicly to advocate the return of selection.
In Hackney, I am approached by a group of parents who want to open a new community school. But this is no longer possible, thanks to the Education Act 2011. From now on, only academies or free schools can be set up. At a community centre in Brent, north-west London, teachers, councillors and governors debate the intense financial pressure that local schools are under to convert to academies, even though Brent's fast-improving secondaries show what a local authority family can achieve.

Later in the month, I meet the articulate and angry parents of the Downhills school in Tottenham, who are battling against the forced conversion of their community primary with the vocal help of the local Labour MP and ex-pupil, David Lammy.

In Birmingham, a list of 12 suggested sponsors for "failing primaries" has been released, including three for-profit providers operating in the US with a decidedly mixed picture of success. Is this what we want for our neighbourhood schools?

The Downhills debacle has shifted the public mood. Gove's ill-judged comments about Trots and "enemies of promise" suggest that the minister is getting rattled. The case has certainly generated a lot of negative publicity.

February 2012 Meetings in both Kent and Lincolnshire, two of the local authorities that still retain the eleven-plus exam. In these counties, secondary schooling remains clearly divided along crude class lines, dividing and damaging communities. It seeps back into primary education, as one soft-spoken Kent head explains. Children lose their motivation by the beginning of year six, which is when they take the "Kent test", some of them barely ten years old. Either they have passed the eleven-plus and can't be bothered with the rest of their primary schooling or they have failed and feel demoralised, often for life. No one forgets failing the eleven-plus, as I realise when I meet a prominent academic at a seminar on School Wars in Cambridge: it is the first thing that she mentions to me.

Yet the coalition has given the green light to existing grammars to set up "satellites". Other local schools are now banned from lodging an objection, thanks to some nifty and dishonourable footwork around the admissions code.

Toby Young makes the absurd claim that objection to the government's policies is confined to a handful of campaigners such as myself. Discontent at coalition school policies has not reached anti-NHS reform levels but there is widespread unease at the speed of the fragmentation of state education, from a government with no overall mandate to do so. (In their 2010 election manifesto, the Lib Dems promised to scrap academies.) The most common question at the end of meetings is: "What can we do?"

In early February, the OECD publishes a report confirming that the best systems inter­nationally are non-selective; even streaming, it argues, depresses overall attainment and widens the class divide. When I debate these findings with the free school founder and pro-streamer Katharine Birbalsingh, she declares: "I love my bottom set!"

Meanwhile, figures released through a Freedom of Information request show that the West London Free School takes children with significantly higher ability levels (at Key Stage 2, the end of primary) than the average London secondary. The way the school markets itself no doubt encourages mostly families with higher-attaining children to apply.

March 2012 A turning point in the national debate as Henry Stewart, one of my co-founders of the campaigning website the Local Schools Network, analyses the 2011 GCSE results. On almost every measure, the much-maligned community schools outperform the politically and financially favoured academies. Strip out the vocational equivalents that Gove has recently repudiated and academy performance falls even more dramatically.

The Observer gives a whole page to the 2011 results story. Suddenly there is an official silence as thick and all-encompassing as snow. For a short while, we have rendered Gove and his combative allies speechless.