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.

Melissa Benn writes for the Guardian and other publications on social issues, particularly education. She is the author of several books of non-fiction and two novels, including One of Us (2008), and reviews books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The end of socialism

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Fitter, dumber, more productive

How the craze for Apple Watches, Fitbits and other wearable tech devices revives the old and discredited science of behaviourism.

When Tim Cook unveiled the latest operating system for the Apple Watch in June, he described the product in a remarkable way. This is no longer just a wrist-mounted gadget for checking your email and social media notifications; it is now “the ultimate device for a healthy life”.

With the watch’s fitness-tracking and heart rate-sensor features to the fore, Cook explained how its Activity and Workout apps have been retooled to provide greater “motivation”. A new Breathe app encourages the user to take time out during the day for deep breathing sessions. Oh yes, this watch has an app that notifies you when it’s time to breathe. The paradox is that if you have zero motivation and don’t know when to breathe in the first place, you probably won’t survive long enough to buy an Apple Watch.

The watch and its marketing are emblematic of how the tech trend is moving beyond mere fitness tracking into what might one call quality-of-life tracking and algorithmic hacking of the quality of consciousness. A couple of years ago I road-tested a brainwave-sensing headband, called the Muse, which promises to help you quiet your mind and achieve “focus” by concentrating on your breathing as it provides aural feedback over earphones, in the form of the sound of wind at a beach. I found it turned me, for a while, into a kind of placid zombie with no useful “focus” at all.

A newer product even aims to hack sleep – that productivity wasteland, which, according to the art historian and essayist Jonathan Crary’s book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, is an affront to the foundations of capitalism. So buy an “intelligent sleep mask” called the Neuroon to analyse the quality of your sleep at night and help you perform more productively come morning. “Knowledge is power!” it promises. “Sleep analytics gathers your body’s sleep data and uses it to help you sleep smarter!” (But isn’t one of the great things about sleep that, while you’re asleep, you are perfectly stupid?)

The Neuroon will also help you enjoy technologically assisted “power naps” during the day to combat “lack of energy”, “fatigue”, “mental exhaustion” and “insomnia”. When it comes to quality of sleep, of course, numerous studies suggest that late-night smartphone use is very bad, but if you can’t stop yourself using your phone, at least you can now connect it to a sleep-enhancing gadget.

So comes a brand new wave of devices that encourage users to outsource not only their basic bodily functions but – as with the Apple Watch’s emphasis on providing “motivation” – their very willpower.  These are thrillingly innovative technologies and yet, in the way they encourage us to think about ourselves, they implicitly revive an old and discarded school of ­thinking in psychology. Are we all neo-­behaviourists now?

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The school of behaviourism arose in the early 20th century out of a virtuous scientific caution. Experimenters wished to avoid anthropomorphising animals such as rats and pigeons by attributing to them mental capacities for belief, reasoning, and so forth. This kind of description seemed woolly and impossible to verify.

The behaviourists discovered that the actions of laboratory animals could, in effect, be predicted and guided by careful “conditioning”, involving stimulus and reinforcement. They then applied Ockham’s razor: there was no reason, they argued, to believe in elaborate mental equipment in a small mammal or bird; at bottom, all behaviour was just a response to external stimulus. The idea that a rat had a complex mentality was an unnecessary hypothesis and so could be discarded. The psychologist John B Watson declared in 1913 that behaviour, and behaviour alone, should be the whole subject matter of psychology: to project “psychical” attributes on to animals, he and his followers thought, was not permissible.

The problem with Ockham’s razor, though, is that sometimes it is difficult to know when to stop cutting. And so more radical behaviourists sought to apply the same lesson to human beings. What you and I think of as thinking was, for radical behaviourists such as the Yale psychologist Clark L Hull, just another pattern of conditioned reflexes. A human being was merely a more complex knot of stimulus responses than a pigeon. Once perfected, some scientists believed, behaviourist science would supply a reliable method to “predict and control” the behaviour of human beings, and thus all social problems would be overcome.

It was a kind of optimistic, progressive version of Nineteen Eighty-Four. But it fell sharply from favour after the 1960s, and the subsequent “cognitive revolution” in psychology emphasised the causal role of conscious thinking. What became cognitive behavioural therapy, for instance, owed its impressive clinical success to focusing on a person’s cognition – the thoughts and the beliefs that radical behaviourism treated as mythical. As CBT’s name suggests, however, it mixes cognitive strategies (analyse one’s thoughts in order to break destructive patterns) with behavioural techniques (act a certain way so as to affect one’s feelings). And the deliberate conditioning of behaviour is still a valuable technique outside the therapy room.

The effective “behavioural modification programme” first publicised by Weight Watchers in the 1970s is based on reinforcement and support techniques suggested by the behaviourist school. Recent research suggests that clever conditioning – associating the taking of a medicine with a certain smell – can boost the body’s immune response later when a patient detects the smell, even without a dose of medicine.

Radical behaviourism that denies a subject’s consciousness and agency, however, is now completely dead as a science. Yet it is being smuggled back into the mainstream by the latest life-enhancing gadgets from Silicon Valley. The difference is that, now, we are encouraged to outsource the “prediction and control” of our own behaviour not to a benign team of psychological experts, but to algorithms.

It begins with measurement and analysis of bodily data using wearable instruments such as Fitbit wristbands, the first wave of which came under the rubric of the “quantified self”. (The Victorian polymath and founder of eugenics, Francis Galton, asked: “When shall we have anthropometric laboratories, where a man may, when he pleases, get himself and his children weighed, measured, and rightly photographed, and have their bodily faculties tested by the best methods known to modern science?” He has his answer: one may now wear such laboratories about one’s person.) But simply recording and hoarding data is of limited use. To adapt what Marx said about philosophers: the sensors only interpret the body, in various ways; the point is to change it.

And the new technology offers to help with precisely that, offering such externally applied “motivation” as the Apple Watch. So the reasoning, striving mind is vacated (perhaps with the help of a mindfulness app) and usurped by a cybernetic system to optimise the organism’s functioning. Electronic stimulus produces a physiological response, as in the behaviourist laboratory. The human being herself just needs to get out of the way. The customer of such devices is merely an opaquely functioning machine to be tinkered with. The desired outputs can be invoked by the correct inputs from a technological prosthesis. Our physical behaviour and even our moods are manipulated by algorithmic number-crunching in corporate data farms, and, as a result, we may dream of becoming fitter, happier and more productive.

***

 

The broad current of behaviourism was not homogeneous in its theories, and nor are its modern technological avatars. The physiologist Ivan Pavlov induced dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell, which they had learned to associate with food. Here, stimulus (the bell) produces an involuntary response (salivation). This is called “classical conditioning”, and it is advertised as the scientific mechanism behind a new device called the Pavlok, a wristband that delivers mild electric shocks to the user in order, so it promises, to help break bad habits such as overeating or smoking.

The explicit behaviourist-revival sell here is interesting, though it is arguably predicated on the wrong kind of conditioning. In classical conditioning, the stimulus evokes the response; but the Pavlok’s painful electric shock is a stimulus that comes after a (voluntary) action. This is what the psychologist who became the best-known behaviourist theoretician, B F Skinner, called “operant conditioning”.

By associating certain actions with positive or negative reinforcement, an animal is led to change its behaviour. The user of a Pavlok treats herself, too, just like an animal, helplessly suffering the gadget’s painful negative reinforcement. “Pavlok associates a mild zap with your bad habit,” its marketing material promises, “training your brain to stop liking the habit.” The use of the word “brain” instead of “mind” here is revealing. The Pavlok user is encouraged to bypass her reflective faculties and perform pain-led conditioning directly on her grey matter, in order to get from it the behaviour that she prefers. And so modern behaviourist technologies act as though the cognitive revolution in psychology never happened, encouraging us to believe that thinking just gets in the way.

Technologically assisted attempts to defeat weakness of will or concentration are not new. In 1925 the inventor Hugo Gernsback announced, in the pages of his magazine Science and Invention, an invention called the Isolator. It was a metal, full-face hood, somewhat like a diving helmet, connected by a rubber hose to an oxygen tank. The Isolator, too, was designed to defeat distractions and assist mental focus.

The problem with modern life, Gernsback wrote, was that the ringing of a telephone or a doorbell “is sufficient, in nearly all cases, to stop the flow of thoughts”. Inside the Isolator, however, sounds are muffled, and the small eyeholes prevent you from seeing anything except what is directly in front of you. Gernsback provided a salutary photograph of himself wearing the Isolator while sitting at his desk, looking like one of the Cybermen from Doctor Who. “The author at work in his private study aided by the Isolator,” the caption reads. “Outside noises being eliminated, the worker can concentrate with ease upon the subject at hand.”

Modern anti-distraction tools such as computer software that disables your internet connection, or word processors that imitate an old-fashioned DOS screen, with nothing but green text on a black background, as well as the brain-measuring Muse headband – these are just the latest versions of what seems an age-old desire for technologically imposed calm. But what do we lose if we come to rely on such gadgets, unable to impose calm on ourselves? What do we become when we need machines to motivate us?

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It was B F Skinner who supplied what became the paradigmatic image of ­behaviourist science with his “Skinner Box”, formally known as an “operant conditioning chamber”. Skinner Boxes come in different flavours but a classic example is a box with an electrified floor and two levers. A rat is trapped in the box and must press the correct lever when a certain light comes on. If the rat gets it right, food is delivered. If the rat presses the wrong lever, it receives a painful electric shock through the booby-trapped floor. The rat soon learns to press the right lever all the time. But if the levers’ functions are changed unpredictably by the experimenters, the rat becomes confused, withdrawn and depressed.

Skinner Boxes have been used with success not only on rats but on birds and primates, too. So what, after all, are we doing if we sign up to technologically enhanced self-improvement through gadgets and apps? As we manipulate our screens for ­reassurance and encouragement, or wince at a painful failure to be better today than we were yesterday, we are treating ourselves similarly as objects to be improved through operant conditioning. We are climbing willingly into a virtual Skinner Box.

As Carl Cederström and André Spicer point out in their book The Wellness Syndrome, published last year: “Surrendering to an authoritarian agency, which is not just telling you what to do, but also handing out rewards and punishments to shape your behaviour more effectively, seems like undermining your own agency and autonomy.” What’s worse is that, increasingly, we will have no choice in the matter anyway. Gernsback’s Isolator was explicitly designed to improve the concentration of the “worker”, and so are its digital-age descendants. Corporate employee “wellness” programmes increasingly encourage or even mandate the use of fitness trackers and other behavioural gadgets in order to ensure an ideally efficient and compliant workforce.

There are many political reasons to resist the pitiless transfer of responsibility for well-being on to the individual in this way. And, in such cases, it is important to point out that the new idea is a repackaging of a controversial old idea, because that challenges its proponents to defend it explicitly. The Apple Watch and its cousins promise an utterly novel form of technologically enhanced self-mastery. But it is also merely the latest way in which modernity invites us to perform operant conditioning on ourselves, to cleanse away anxiety and dissatisfaction and become more streamlined citizen-consumers. Perhaps we will decide, after all, that tech-powered behaviourism is good. But we should know what we are arguing about. The rethinking should take place out in the open.

In 1987, three years before he died, B F Skinner published a scholarly paper entitled Whatever Happened to Psychology as the Science of Behaviour?, reiterating his now-unfashionable arguments against psychological talk about states of mind. For him, the “prediction and control” of behaviour was not merely a theoretical preference; it was a necessity for global social justice. “To feed the hungry and clothe the naked are ­remedial acts,” he wrote. “We can easily see what is wrong and what needs to be done. It is much harder to see and do something about the fact that world agriculture must feed and clothe billions of people, most of them yet unborn. It is not enough to advise people how to behave in ways that will make a future possible; they must be given effective reasons for behaving in those ways, and that means effective contingencies of reinforcement now.” In other words, mere arguments won’t equip the world to support an increasing population; strategies of behavioural control must be designed for the good of all.

Arguably, this authoritarian strand of behaviourist thinking is what morphed into the subtly reinforcing “choice architecture” of nudge politics, which seeks gently to compel citizens to do the right thing (eat healthy foods, sign up for pension plans) by altering the ways in which such alternatives are presented.

By contrast, the Apple Watch, the Pavlok and their ilk revive a behaviourism evacuated of all social concern and designed solely to optimise the individual customer. By ­using such devices, we voluntarily offer ourselves up to a denial of our voluntary selves, becoming atomised lab rats, to be manipulated electronically through the corporate cloud. It is perhaps no surprise that when the founder of American behaviourism, John B Watson, left academia in 1920, he went into a field that would come to profit very handsomely indeed from his skills of manipulation – advertising. Today’s neo-behaviourist technologies promise to usher in a world that is one giant Skinner Box in its own right: a world where thinking just gets in the way, and we all mechanically press levers for food pellets.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge