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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Political tribes: why democracy is no match for the visceral pull of “us” against “them”

How Donald Trump epitomises and supercharges white American tribalism.

During the Vietnam War, the US thought it was fighting communism. Afterwards, the consensus was that the Vietnamese had been fighting for national independence. But Amy Chua, in her extremely stimulating Political Tribes, suggests an additional factor: many Vietnamese thought they were fighting the country’s Chinese minority.

Ethnic Chinese made up only 1 per cent of Vietnam’s population, yet controlled 70 to 80 per cent of national wealth. They were what Chua calls a “market-dominant minority”. North Vietnam’s leader, Ho Chi Minh, was backed by communist China, but when he attacked “capitalists”, most Vietnamese knew exactly which ethnic group he meant.

After the war, many of Vietnam’s Chinese were either massacred or fled: they made up the great majority of the “Vietnamese boat people” of the late 1970s. The story makes the central point of Chua’s book: American decision-makers, both at home and abroad, have tended to focus on markets and democracy while overlooking tribe. The political salience of tribalism only became unmissable with Donald Trump’s election as US president.

Most people, argues Chua, a law professor at Yale University, don’t simply seek to be free or rich as individuals. They want to thrive within their tribe (usually an ethnic one), often while hurting other tribes. Now, the US risks tottering into the kind of winner-takes-all, tribalised polity that we usually associate with the developing world.

Tribe has always been Chua’s topic. Her 2002 debut, World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability, anticipated America’s debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nine years later, she hit fame with her Chinese-American how-to memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, about how ethnic Chinese parents supposedly raise their children to be workaholic winners. Then The Triple Package, co-written with her equally high-achieving husband, Jed Rubenfeld, sought to explain (not altogether convincingly) why certain tribes (such as Jews, Mormons, or Nigerian Igbo) tend to succeed in the US.

Chua has a gift for simplicity, sticking to her main argument and homing in on what matters. She is a digger of surprising facts, which she presents in clear if artless prose. Her occasional oversimplifications, and her willingness to plunge into areas in which she is not an expert, only increase her influence on public debates.

The chief tension in US history is between the rhetoric of universalism and the reality of white dominance. As Chua says, the US officially thinks of itself as a “supergroup”, which can accept people of all tribes as Americans. Hardly any other big country sees itself this way. Even in very diverse states, one tribe usually dominates – in China, for instance, the Han Chinese. Yet whenever American decision-makers discover another country – generally after invading it – they tend to impose upon it the supergroup logic. They assume that once the country is given markets and democracy (or at least a pro-American dictator) then any pesky tribal issues will soon fade away. The prescription worked brilliantly in post-war Japan and West Germany, but then Japan had always been unusually ethnically homogenous, and Germany had become so through genocide. In the first half of Political Tribes, Chua argues that things went wrong when the US applied the usual prescription to more ethnically complex states such as Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and Venezuela.

In Afghanistan in the 1980s, American funding helped create the Taliban. In 2001, the US identified the Taliban as an anti-democratic, demonic force that had to be eradicated. That wasn’t totally wrong, but the Taliban was also a resistance movement of ethnic Pashtuns, who feared that their fragmented collection of tribes and clans was losing control of Afghanistan. The US toppled the Taliban in 75 days. Then it installed a new Afghan regime, which (though the Americans don’t seem to have dwelled on the fact) consisted mostly of ethnic Tajiks. Nearly 17 years later, the Afghan war is the longest-running in American history. Trump has sent more troops, while saying: “We don’t want to talk with the Taliban. There may be a time but it’s going to be a long time.”

In Iraq, too, the US initially ignored tribal divides. Peter Galbraith, in The End of Iraq, tells the famous anecdote of the three Iraqi-Americans who were invited to watch the Super Bowl with George W Bush in January 2003. This was two months before Bush invaded Iraq, yet the visitors soon realised the president wasn’t familiar with the distinction between Shia and Sunni. When they tried to explain it, Bush allegedly blurted out: “I thought the Iraqis were Muslims!” The story would have been hard to credit, were it not for everything the Americans did after the invasion.

In countries with sharp ethnic divides, democracy often just makes these worse. When there’s suddenly a free election, the largest tribe – in Iraq, the Shia – tends to grab power and punish smaller tribes. Islamic State was created largely by disaffected Sunni Iraqi military officers. In Myanmar, too, more democracy seems to have led to greater persecution of the Rohingya. Western countries (not only the US) misread Aung San Suu Kyi as a democratic hero; she is in fact a tribal leader.

While democracy can hurt small tribes, the other American prescription, free markets, can alienate big tribes if a country has a market-dominant minority – and it usually does. When Hugo Chávez became president of Venezuela 20 years ago, the US understood him as a communist stooge. In fact, the brown-skinned Chávez was backed by most of Venezuela’s non-white majority, who were sick of a white elite controlling the economy. But when Chua pointed this out in her first book, many white Venezuelans insisted that they were colour-blind, and that racism didn’t exist in their gloriously miscegenated country. She got death threats.

At times in Political Tribes, Chua overstates her argument. Whatever the country, her moral is always the same, “the blindness [to tribal identities] has been the Achilles’ heel of US foreign policy”. This is broadly convincing but surely exaggerated. Even for the average half-awake layperson, two days in Latin America is enough to establish the centrality of race. Surely American policymakers couldn’t have missed it? But Chua – a canny marketer – makes her points strongly. 

After her tour of American blunders abroad, in the second half of the book she comes home. By now, the reader is primed to see the US as just another messed-up tribal society. Other writers have made this argument over the past two years, but Chua does a better job than most of explaining how the country got there.

We’ve heard a lot since 2016 about how the white working class voted for Trump in a scream of post-industrial economic pain. That is partly the case, but it doesn’t explain why vast majorities of whites in all income groups (and most white women) voted for Trump. He was the candidate of whiteness. Many of his voters were upset by the browning of their country. The 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act abolished the old racist quotas favouring immigrants from white countries. Non-whites arrived and, shockingly, demanded rights.

Perhaps the biggest social change in the West since the 1960s is that ethnic minorities, women, gay people and now transgender people have stood up and said that there are no such thing as second-class humans. Some on the American left have taken their claims to extremes. They ditched Martin Luther King’s dream of a country in which people wouldn’t be judged on “the colour of their skin” (which was also Obama’s ideal); instead they revel in the unique identity and unmatched victimhood of their own subgroup. Chua describes how the acronym LGBTQ has spawned variants including GLBT, LGBTI and LGBTQQIAAP, as “identity groups quarrelled about who should be included and who should come first”.

Still, many members of the former second class have successfully stormed the first-class cabin. White Anglo-Saxon Protestants – for centuries, the US’s proverbial first-class humans – are now under-represented at elite universities, in the music charts, and even on the Supreme Court, which was entirely Catholic and Jewish until the Catholic-turned-Episcopalian Neil Gorsuch took his seat last year. Meanwhile, non-whites such as the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates have claimed a right to retell the national story – helping shift it from Ronald Reagan’s “shining city on a hill” to an account of genocide and slavery.

Just as Iraqi Sunnis lost power after Saddam Hussein fell, American whites now fear decline. True, they remain dominant compared with blacks or Hispanics. They are richer, live longer, and have a police force whose self-understood mission seems to be lethal control of black men. But whites are no longer unquestionably first-class Americans.

Even so, says Chua, most of Trump’s 63 million voters are not white nationalists. If you take “white nationalism” to mean that all non-whites should be killed or expelled from the US, only 4 per cent of Americans admit to supporting it, according to an NPR/PBS Marist poll last August. In another survey for the Pew Foundation, even 56 per cent of Republicans said it was “neither good nor bad” that non-whites will become the American majority in the next 25 to 50 years.

Rather, when Chua tries to explain what racial arrangement most Trump voters want, she describes a video in which the Trumpist TV host Tomi Lahren lays into the black American football player Colin Kaepernick, who kneeled in protest at the national anthem. Lahren delivers a lecture on the “patriots” who died for the flag, and concludes: “Colin, if this country disgusts you so much, leave. I guarantee there are thousands and thousands of people around the world that would gladly take your spot.” This video has had 66 million views. Parsing Lahren, Chua argues that Trumpist whites want minorities to be grateful, to know their place, to buy the white narrative of a good America, and not to imagine they are first-class citizens.

Trump now articulates that position daily. He both epitomises and supercharges American tribalism. With him in charge, all other American groups – blacks, women, Mexicans, gays, ad infinitum – feel even more threatened than his base does. Meanwhile, below the radar, new American groups keep spawning. Chua catalogues them diligently: the millions of followers of the “prosperity gospel”, who think Jesus will make them rich; the mostly white, armed “sovereign citizens”, who think they would have been rich but for the federal government’s elaborate scam to rip them off; fans of World Wrestling Entertainment, who aren’t very interested in the reality-fiction distinction, and who embraced Trump years before he went into politics; mostly Hispanic followers of quasi-Catholic “narco-saint” cults, and so on.

Politically, the US seems to have reached the point that the future president John Adams feared in 1780: “A division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other. This, in my humble apprehension, is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our constitution.” Meanwhile, the American patriotism vaunted by Lahren is waning. Trump’s own rhetoric is often caustically anti-American. “In these conditions,” warns Chua, “democracy devolves into zero-sum group competition – pure political tribalism”.

Chua’s conclusion – dripping with optimism about America, in 20th-century, high-patriotic style – doesn’t sound credible. She describes individual Americans who have reached across the tribal divides, and offers some cheerful vignettes from Yale: “I’ve seen a former Navy SEAL and a human rights activist bond over Trivial Pursuit.” She points out that the US is doomed if the left simply writes off the country as inherently racist since its foundation, and the right keeps dreaming of a white Christmas. If American tribes are to continue their common project, they will have to believe that the US can one day attain its promised universalism. Only non-Americans have the luxury of dismissing this as sentimental claptrap. She closes with lines from the black poet Langston Hughes:

O, yes,

I say it plain,

America never was America to me,

And yet I swear this oath –

America will be!

Chua admits that her extolling of individual outreach can seem like “a Band-Aid for bullet wounds”. An equally plausible scenario for the US is that Trump loses the 2020 election, condemns the vote as rigged and urges his followers to fight it, unleashing a low-level civil war (possibly while boarding a plane to Moscow to escape money-laundering charges). Then, the Iraq war will have finally come home. l

Simon Kuper writes for the Financial Times. His books include “Football Against the Enemy” (Orion)

Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations
Amy Chua
Bloomsbury, 293pp, £20

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