’19th-century inequalities in shiny classrooms’: Melissa Benn on the future of schools

Melissa Benn, author of School Wars, discusses education with teacher Anna Wolmuth

January 8, 2012
10 min read

Anna Wolmuth Your recent book School Wars surveys the historical context and current terrain of battles over Britain’s education system. What do you see as the biggest threat currently faced by the state education system?

Melissa Benn I think we have a government that will take us back to 19th-century inequalities – but in shiny classrooms. The biggest threat is the cutting out of local democracy and local accountability, and its replacement by a system that is state-funded but run by private or ‘charitable’ interests. The channelling of public money per pupil to unaccountable companies worries me greatly – in terms of democracy but also in terms of quality.

Anna Wolmuth As you mention in your book, these private companies, now providing education on a not-for-profit basis, are perhaps waiting in the sidelines for more commercial opportunities when the political climate allows. How likely do you think this is?

Melissa Benn The government is under pressure from the economic right – further to their right – to allow for-profit schooling. My view is that they can’t do it now because they’re being held back by the Lib Dems. But if the Conservatives win an outright majority, I am pretty sure it would go that way. The Adam Smith Institute has urged Michael Gove to do that, as have leader articles in certain newspapers.

My own opinion is that this is maybe a step too far for the public. One of the interesting developments – or non-developments – of the current period is how little politicians and the new educational evangelists talk about the private sector in education. I think it’s because they understand that, although state education has never garnered the same love as the NHS, parents don’t feel easy about private control of it. This might be a very good campaigning point.

Anna Wolmuth Why do you think that state education has never ‘garnered the same love as the NHS’?

Melissa Benn I think that goes back to 1944. The first Act that established a universal right to education was set up on a divided basis. The 11-plus divided the successes and failures, whereas the NHS said access for all, and still, when I hear Ed Miliband speak, he talks about the NHS gluing us together. He talks about pubs and post offices and churches but he doesn’t talk about education because this system has never been a national one, it has never been a genuinely inclusive one. The comprehensive reform would have been an opportunity for that. But clearly for all the reasons I analyse in the book, there has never been the political will to end selection and create a system of a good local school for all.

Anna Wolmuth The removal of state education from local democratic provision is largely taking place through the academies and free school agenda. What do you think we can do to resist this?

Melissa Benn It is very clear that this government is only interested in academies and free schools. They are bribing the top end of state schools to become academies – they cut state funding and then they offer extra funding to outstanding schools to become academies. At the bottom end they are bullying schools into becoming academies by raising the floor standard. If you don’t get 35 per cent GCSEs at A–C you are at risk of being taken over.

1.2 million children are now in academies and free schools. We still have 6.5 million in other kinds of maintained schools, so the battle is not over yet. We have to fight this agenda. But, on the other hand, as more and more schools become academies, we mustn’t let go of the children and teachers in those because they’re part of the state system as well. We have to have principled opposition where it hasn’t happened and a nuanced approach where it has.

What do we say to people who are already in academies? We say ‘Tell us what’s happening in them and fight for fairness within them.’ There is the whole question of teachers’ pay and conditions, merit pay, longer hours. One of the most powerful tools in politics is description of ‘what is’. We have to know what is, in order to say what shouldn’t be and what might be.

Anna Wolmuth. What role do you see for the teaching unions in these struggles?

Melissa Benn The teaching unions are very important and I would like to see them work more closely on the ‘direction of travel’ of our education system. I think what’s happening on the NHS bill is so interesting. There has been this professional revolt against not just pay and conditions but what is happening to the NHS as a service. It would be great to do something more co-ordinated about where we’re going in education too. Couldn’t we get together a forum of civil society that wants something different for our education – defending state education and comprehensives and saying let’s not privatise, let’s find another way with new forms of local democracy. Do you think there would be the appetite for that?

Anna Wolmuth I’m sure union branches would be up for supporting something like that. At the moment it’s all tied up with pensions, which is really important, but we can’t just talk about pay and conditions and let the education system go down the river.

Melissa Benn Well I think that suits the powers-that-be hugely – that you should all be defending, or not defending, your rights, while they, in the Department for Education, carve up the education system.

Anna Wolmuth As a teacher, one of the main obstacles I see to schools being empowering places for children is the tyranny of the ‘A–C economy’: the high pressure on schools to get those five A–Cs, including English and maths, and now the EBacc [the English baccalaureate, which measures how many pupils achieve a good GCSE in English, maths, two sciences, a language and a humanity].

This has knock-on effects all the way down to year 7 in terms of the status of different subjects and the self-esteem of students who are then entered into different exams or different courses. I feel that there are unequal opportunities on offer to children within a school, and this is related to the pressure on schools to get their A–C percentages up at any cost. What do you think can be done to escape this?

Melissa Benn I’m not against schools getting results for their children. But I think our assessment system is too test-driven. I would like to see a different kind of assessment – more around what children are capable of doing, rather than getting over all of these hurdles. The thing about A–Cs is that you are inevitably going to have that key marginal pressure [the pressure on schools to focus on their D–C borderline students], aren’t you? Can you see a way out of it?

Anna Wolmuth I think we need to get rid of league tables completely. I think that’s the only way that we’ll get around it. They were brought in as a measure to increase competition between schools.

Of course you want to make sure that all students are making progress and are doing the best they can. But I think anything that’s pitting schools against each other is leading to these negative pressures that filter down to every single aspect of school education.

Melissa Benn What about accountability? We don’t trust teachers, do we? The fear is that if we don’t have the league tables, teachers are just going to idle. Do you think that’s unfair?

Anna Wolmuth I think it is unfair and at the moment we’ve got perverse incentives. This system is encouraging ‘teaching to the test’, which does no one any favours. Things that I think are really important about education like citizenship and personal, social, and health education, and student wellbeing more generally, are de-prioritised so that everyone can spend more time on their ‘core’ subjects.

Melissa Benn We need a different kind of assessment. But I do think, as parents, you need to have accountability, so devising a different kind of accountability is important.

Anna Wolmuth You discuss the division between the academic and vocational aspects of education, which play out, more often than not, along class lines. How do you think we can move beyond this?

Melissa Benn At least up to 16, we should be mixing academic and vocational education. I’m all for children taking academic subjects if they want to but I think the EBacc is going to lead to snobbery and more segregation. It is not a plan for all children.

I think the ‘Broader Bacc’ campaign started in Hull is a good one and it goes back to Mike Tomlinson’s proposals [in the 2004 Tomlinson Report]. He came up with a completely different way of approaching qualifications so that every child assembles a suite of qualifications as they go through school. Somebody who is going down the vocational route might mix this with philosophy and French, and people who are going down the academic route can also have a mix, so that we don’t have this divide. But there is no sign of the government following it.

I think instead we will see the expansion of academic selection, the expansion of the technical education system. This will be a return to the tripartite system [the system established in 1944, dividing children into grammar schools, technical schools and secondary moderns on the basis of the 11-plus exam] but it wouldn’t be so spelled out that you can say it’s unfair – it will just be ‘this is common sense’.

Anna Wolmuth Thinking about what’s going on within schools and within classrooms, at the end of your book you mention a number of exciting pedagogical approaches, such as ‘learning without limits’ [teaching without ability labelling]. How do you think we can see more of these in our education system?

Melissa Benn I think there’s a real clash between different models of learning going on. Gove et al really like the model that comes with elitist education, the grammar school, facts and drilling, rote learning. Currently we have education by numbers. It’s league tables, it’s SATs, it’s defining learners rather than thinking about learning.

The other model is open-ended, learning as a voyage of discovery, rather than the discovered being put on the page. When you sit down with anyone and talk about where the exciting ideas of the future are, it’s really in all of these ideas. You have to introduce it, as Alison Peacock, head of Wroxham primary school, has done with ‘learning without limits’ – you have to show it works.

If somebody set up a free school that was based around learning without limits, what would you and I think? That’s a really interesting question.

Anna Wolmuth I’m part of a radical education reading group. This question comes up nearly every time we have a discussion. The problem is it’s opting out of, and dismantling, the state education system – doing exactly what the government wants.

Melissa Benn This point is so important. Once you break it up and fragment it, you lose something that’s essential to a national education service – a common educational offer to our children, a national project to educate everyone.


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