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School Wars: the Battle for Britain’s Education

Second-rate modern.

The national education service was created at about the same time as the NHS, but never caught the public imagination in quite the same way. The great, civilising idea that no one should die, or live in agony, because they were not rich enough to afford treatment, had greater resonance than the idea that no one should grow up illiterate or innumerate because their parents could not pay for education.

As Melissa Benn points out, this made state education much more vulnerable. It has been buffeted by all the crackpot political theories of the past 30 years, which were thrown at it all at once. It has been drowned in the dead language of business - Benn quotes a typical CBI publication calling for "outcome-focused commissioning arrangements, rather than input-driven procurements". It has been bullied into submission, so that now teachers and their heads feel they have to kneel down before the gods of the free market, appeasing them as the price of being allowed to teach children. And it has been abused, denigrated and kicked about by grubby politicians and greedy business people, who grasped early on that the easiest way to show you've improved something is to persuade everyone what an utterly dreadful state it was in before you came along.

Benn thinks she has worked out why education never evoked the same loyalty as health, and she may be right. She thinks it is because the Attlee government, when it implemented the Education Act 1944 and gave every child of school-going age the right to an education, missed the chance to create comprehensive schools. Instead, it set up a system in which children were divided into successes and failures at the age of 11. That sealed its fate. For the poor, it was not an attractive prospect to have their children routinely consigned to second-rate, underfunded establishments, euphemistically called "secondary moderns", where simple skills were taught. For the middle classes, it might have been fine if they could be sure that their children were never going to end up in secondary modern schools, but they found that they couldn't.

By the time another Labour government came along under Harold Wilson in 1964, the system that had begun with such high hopes was far less loved than it deserved to be. Benn thinks that even then it might have been saved, if Wilson's education secretary Anthony Crosland had been more forceful about comprehensive reorganisation.

Wilson and Crosland no doubt thought that Labour would get another crack at it. But the next Labour government was led by Tony Blair, who loathed comprehensive education. Sometimes people are surprised to discover how much I loathe Blair, and they probably think it is about Iraq, but it isn't. It is because Labour's turn had come around, as it did in 1945 and 1964, and once again it fell to a Labour prime minister and education secretary to take forward the work begun by Attlee and Ellen Wilkinson and continued by Wilson and Crosland - yet Blair and his first education secretary, David Blunkett, set about dismantling the progress made so far. They left us in the situation Benn describes as follows:

Our state education system is fast fragmenting . . . The government currently boasts that two schools a day are converting to academy status, leaving the local, collaborative family of schools to go it alone, becoming accountable to only a handful of ministers and civil servants in Whitehall . . . If, as now seems likely, thousands of church schools join the rush to academy status (guaranteeing them continued privileges in admissions and landholding) the game might well be up. Will we - parents, citizens, taxpayers - stand by as one of our most vital public services passes into the hands of venture capitalists, hedge-fund managers and a growing array of faith groups?

Benn still hopes that the ideal of a national education system, democratically accountable locally and giving all children an equal chance in life, can be rescued. This book is intended to help make it possible. School Wars is short, well written and passionate, and is meant to be read not just by those who are experts in education, but also by parents struggling for the first time with a system that must seem impenetrable and unfair, who must wonder if things have to be this way. It tells the story of British state education from 1945, and illustrates starkly the danger it is in.

If I have a quarrel with Benn's analysis, it is that she bravely tries to place all the blame for the mess at the door of the Conservatives. The rot did set in under Margaret Thatcher and Kenneth Baker, and is continuing apace under David Cameron and Michael Gove. But Cameron and Gove are merely building on the foundations laid for them by Blair and Blunkett, who stole Labour's time to continue Thatcher's work. Labour's former leaders are far more responsible for this mess than any Conservative minister.

School Wars: the Battle for Britain's Education
Melissa Benn
Verso, 256pp, £12.99

Francis Beckett's most recent book is “What Did the Baby Boomers Ever Do For Us?" (Biteback, £12.99)

This article first appeared in the 19 September 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Meet the next Prime Minister