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

An artist's version of the Reichstag fire, which Hitler blamed on the communists. CREDIT: DEZAIN UNKIE/ ALAMY
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The art of the big lie: the history of fake news

From the Reichstag fire to Stalin’s show trials, the craft of disinformation is nothing new.

We live, we’re told, in a post-truth era. The internet has hyped up postmodern relativism, and created a kind of gullible cynicism – “nothing is true, and who cares anyway?” But the thing that exploits this mindset is what the Russians call dezinformatsiya. Disinformation – strategic deceit – isn’t new, of course. It has played a part in the battle that has raged between mass democracy and its enemies since at least the First World War.

Letting ordinary people pick governments depends on shared trust in information, and this is vulnerable to attack – not just by politicians who want to manipulate democracy, but by those on the extremes who want to destroy it. In 1924, the first Labour government faced an election. With four days to go, the Daily Mail published a secret letter in which the leading Bolshevik Grigory Zinoviev heralded the government’s treaties with the Soviets as a way to help recruit British workers for Leninism. Labour’s vote actually went up, but the Liberal share collapsed, and the Conservatives returned to power.

We still don’t know exactly who forged the “Zinoviev Letter”, even after exhaustive investigations of British and Soviet intelligence archives in the late 1990s by the then chief historian of the Foreign Office, Gill Bennett. She concluded that the most likely culprits were White Russian anti-Bolsheviks, outraged at Labour’s treaties with Moscow, probably abetted by sympathetic individuals in British intelligence. But whatever the precise provenance, the case demonstrates a principle that has been in use ever since: cultivate your lie from a germ of truth. Zinoviev and the Comintern were actively engaged in trying to stir revolution – in Germany, for example. Those who handled the letter on its journey from the forger’s desk to the front pages – MI6 officers, Foreign Office officials, Fleet Street editors – were all too ready to believe it, because it articulated their fear that mass democracy might open the door to Bolshevism.

Another phantom communist insurrection opened the way to a more ferocious use of disinformation against democracy. On the night of 27 February 1933, Germany’s new part-Nazi coalition was not yet secure in power when news started to hum around Berlin that the Reichstag was on fire. A lone left-wing Dutchman, Marinus van der Lubbe, was caught on the site and said he was solely responsible. But Hitler assumed it was a communist plot, and seized the opportunity to do what he wanted to do anyway: destroy them. The suppression of the communists was successful, but the claim it was based on rapidly collapsed. When the Comintern agent Gyorgy Dimitrov was tried for organising the fire, alongside fellow communists, he mocked the charges against him, which were dismissed for lack of evidence.

Because it involves venturing far from the truth, disinformation can slip from its authors’ control. The Nazis failed to pin blame on the communists – and then the communists pinned blame on the Nazis. Dimitrov’s comrade Willi Münzenberg swiftly organised propaganda suggesting that the fire was too convenient to be Nazi good luck. A “counter-trial” was convened in London; a volume called The Brown Book of the Reichstag Fire and Hitler Terror was rushed into print, mixing real accounts of Nazi persecution of communists – the germ of truth again – with dubious documentary evidence that they had started the fire. Unlike the Nazis’ disinformation, this version stuck, for decades.

Historians such as Richard Evans have argued that both stories about the fire were false, and it really was one man’s doing. But this case demonstrates another disinformation technique still at work today: hide your involvement behind others, as Münzenberg did with the British great and good who campaigned for the Reichstag prisoners. In the Cold War, the real source of disinformation was disguised with the help of front groups, journalistic “agents of influence”, and the trick of planting a fake story in an obscure foreign newspaper, then watching as the news agencies picked it up. (Today, you just wait for retweets.)

In power, the Nazis made much use of a fictitious plot that did, abominably, have traction: The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a forged text first published in Russia in 1903, claimed to be a record of a secret Jewish conspiracy to take over the world – not least by means of its supposed control of everyone from bankers to revolutionaries. As Richard Evans observes, “If you subject people to a barrage of lies, in the end they’ll begin to think well maybe they’re not all true, but there must be something in it.” In Mein Kampf, Hitler argued that the “big lie” always carries credibility – an approach some see at work not only in the Nazis’ constant promotion of the Protocols but in the pretence that their Kristallnacht pogrom in 1938 was spontaneous. (It is ironic that Hitler coined the “big lie” as part of an attack on the Jews’ supposed talent for falsehood.) Today, the daring of the big lie retains its force: even if no one believes it, it makes smaller untruths less objectionable in comparison. It stuns opponents into silence.

Unlike the Nazis, the Bolshevik leaders were shaped by decades as hunted revolutionaries, dodging the Tsarist secret police, who themselves had had a hand in the confection of the Protocols. They occupied the paranoid world of life underground, governed by deceit and counter-deceit, where any friend could be an informer. By the time they finally won power, disinformation was the Bolsheviks’ natural response to the enemies they saw everywhere. And that instinct endures in Russia even now.

In a competitive field, perhaps the show trial is the Soviet exercise in upending the truth that is most instructive today. These sinister theatricals involved the defendants “confessing” their crimes with great
sincerity and detail, even if the charges were ludicrous. By 1936, Stalin felt emboldened to drag his most senior rivals through this process – starting with Grigory Zinoviev.

The show trial is disinformation at its cruellest: coercing someone falsely to condemn themselves to death, in so convincing a way that the world’s press writes it up as truth. One technique involved was perfected by the main prosecutor, Andrey Vyshinsky, who bombarded the defendants with insults such as “scum”, “mad dogs” and “excrement”. Besides intimidating the victim, this helped to distract attention from the absurdity of the charges. Barrages of invective on Twitter are still useful for smearing and silencing enemies.


The show trials were effective partly because they deftly reversed the truth. To conspire to destroy the defendants, Stalin accused them of conspiring to destroy him. He imposed impossible targets on straining Soviet factories; when accidents followed, the managers were forced to confess to “sabotage”. Like Hitler, Stalin made a point of saying the opposite of what he did. In 1936, the first year of the Great Terror, he had a rather liberal new Soviet constitution published. Many in the West chose to believe it. As with the Nazis’ “big lie”, shameless audacity is a disinformation strategy in itself. It must have been hard to accept that any regime could compel such convincing false confessions, or fake an entire constitution.

No one has quite attempted that scale of deceit in the post-truth era, but reversing the truth remains a potent trick. Just think of how Donald Trump countered the accusation that he was spreading “fake news” by making the term his own – turning the charge on his accusers, and even claiming he’d coined it.

Post-truth describes a new abandonment of the very idea of objective truth. But George Orwell was already concerned that this concept was under attack in 1946, helped along by the complacency of dictatorship-friendly Western intellectuals. “What is new in totalitarianism,” he warned in his essay “The Prevention of Literature”, “is that its doctrines are not only unchallengeable but also unstable. They have to be accepted on pain of damnation, but on the other hand they are always liable to be altered on a moment’s notice.”

A few years later, the political theorist Hannah Arendt argued that Nazis and Stalinists, each immersed in their grand conspiratorial fictions, had already reached this point in the 1930s – and that they had exploited a similar sense of alienation and confusion in ordinary people. As she wrote in her 1951 book, The Origins of Totalitarianism: “In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true.” There is a reason that sales of Arendt’s masterwork – and Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four – have spiked since November 2016.

During the Cold War, as the CIA got in on the act, disinformation became less dramatic, more surreptitious. But show trials and forced confessions continued. During the Korean War, the Chinese and North Koreans induced a series of captured US airmen to confess to dropping bacteriological weapons on North Korea. One lamented that he could barely face his family after what he’d done. The pilots were brought before an International Scientific Commission, led by the eminent Cambridge scientist Joseph Needham, which investigated the charges. A documentary film, Oppose Bacteriological Warfare, was made, showing the pilots confessing and Needham’s Commission peering at spiders in the snow. But the story was fake.

The germ warfare hoax was a brilliant exercise in turning democracy’s expectations against it. Scientists’ judgements, campaigning documentary, impassioned confession – if you couldn’t believe all that, what could you believe? For the genius of disinformation is that even exposure doesn’t disable it. All it really has to do is sow doubt and confusion. The story was finally shown to be fraudulent in 1998, through documents transcribed from Soviet archives. The transcripts were authenticated by the historian Kathryn Weathersby, an expert on the archives. But as Dr Weathersby laments, “People come back and say ‘Well, yeah, but, you know, they could have done it, it could have happened.’”

There’s an insidious problem here: the same language is used to express blanket cynicism as empirical scepticism. As Arendt argued, gullibility and cynicism can become one. If opponents of democracy can destroy the very idea of shared, trusted information, they can hope to destabilise democracy itself.

But there is a glimmer of hope here too. The fusion of cynicism and gullibility can also afflict the practitioners of disinformation. The most effective lie involves some self-deception. So the show trial victims seem to have internalised the accusations against them, at least for a while, but so did their tormentors. As the historian Robert Service has written, “Stalin frequently lied to the world when he was simultaneously lying to himself.”

Democracy might be vulnerable because of its reliance on the idea of shared truth – but authoritarianism has a way of undermining itself by getting lost in its own fictions. Disinformation is not only a danger to its targets. 

Phil Tinline’s documentary “Disinformation: A User’s Guide” will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 8pm, 17 March

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