School Wars by Melissa Benn – review
Renowned journalist Melissa Benn evaluates Britain’s schooling structure
We all had labels at school. Maths geek. Good with your hands. Sports star. Creative. The dumb kid? The smart one? The rich kid? Poor? I often look back on the assumptions a made about myself as a child and think how absurd they were. Lofty aspirations yet to enter the picture, my eleven year old self dreamt of becoming a teenage supermarket cashier whose mum let her smoke and chew gum.
It now seems absurd to classify ourselves, and allow our peers to classify us, at such a young age. But in her new book School Wars: The Battle for Britain’s Education Melissa Benn provides some retroactive comfort in suggesting that these childhood labeling rituals aren’t just playground politics. Rather, they are rooted in the very structure of British education.
Benn illustrates a long history of classifying children in stages. Unfortunately the first one is birth, when a family’s financial status dictates a child’s prospects of being educated at a top fee-paying school — or not. Let’s face it, even if the state system were entirely egalitarian, it would still have this huge disparity to contend with.
But without needing to address the comparatively simple question of haves and have-nots, Benn tells us that the state education system has always been, whether we noticed it or not, a political minefield.
Built upon what Benn describes as a ‘pyramid of provision’, the system uses exam results and league tables to ‘cream-skim’ the top students early on for better-funded state schools, like the early grammars and more recently, the new academies and free schools which set their own admissions policies, using what Benn calls ‘soft-focus selection’ to edit their intake.
With these structures, Benn argues, Britain has invited a version of ‘educational apartheid’ that, like the global economy, diverts resources to where it sees most potential, and challenges the rest to catch up.
But what of education as a human right? There’s no question of Benn’s stance — she is a staunch advocate for comprehensive education, an often-muddied term which for Benn means non-selective, all-ability schools, run by a local authority, implemented on a national level.
The current ‘new schools revolution’ pushing forward free schools and academies promises more choices, Benn explains, but at what cost to the quality of learning? Well, that depends on how you measure a good education. But now that an opportunistic third party has visited the front lines promising peace, the official definition of good education, warns Benn, will be subject to the free market, and all its volatility.
Unsurprisingly, then, the book is sharply angled against the expansion of academies and free schools, which are central-government controlled and often funded by private companies or charities. Benn acknowledges that many sponsored academies produce excellent results (though perhaps through an overly results-driven system). The question Benn asks us to consider involves the bigger picture; if schools are not accountable to the local authority, how can we ensure they have the community interest in mind?
And if comprehensive education continues to dissolve, Benn predicts a “landscape of branded diversity” will emerge, and “the fast pace of technology, and the temptation to cut costs, will increase standardised, centralised learning methods.”
All parents want a top school for their children, which in the current climate requires exhaustive research of the buffet of options available, from faith schools selecting on religious criteria to free schools specialising in, say, Latin, and everything in between, with only the expanding market of education chains staying ahead of the game, ready to supply, and profit from their invitation to join in the conversation via the materials they provide. This, Benn makes clear, is the most significant development of our generation.
Choice is good, but Benn’s real question is, who’s doing the choosing?
School Wars: The Battle for Britain’s Education by Melissa Benn
Published by Verso