Published last September, Melissa Benn’s School Wars was very much a product of its time. The year before its publication was an occasionally empowering but often crippling time to be a student, both in terms of morale and the bank balance – or extended overdraft in most cases. In August 2010, many misguidedly put their faith in - and more detrimentally gave their vote to - a Tory-boy masquerading behind a yellow tie. This was then followed in November by the protests at Millbank: demonstrations that had some appalled at the rage they witnessed in the streets, and others relieved that young people appeared to have finally woken up. Then, in August 2011, the frustrations of a “disenfranchised youth” culminated in riots and it became plain for all the world to see that the younger generation in Britain had in many ways been failed and were now demanding better.
A high-profile campaigner for comprehensive education and frequent broadcaster and regular speaker for educational issues, Melissa Benn is a founder member of the Local Schools Network, set up to support local schools and to counter media misinformation about their achievements and the challenges they face. Almost a year on from the publication of School Wars and “as the debate about British education becomes increasingly fractious”, Melissa Benn spoke to Ed Lewis at the New Left Project last week about developments regarding government strategy, the role of Ofsted and the nature of the response from the NUT.
Referencing her argument that “the current conservative party are ‘new school revolutionaries’ pursuing a radical, market-driven overhaul of British education,” Lewis asks about how both the Tories’ “revolutionary” project and their basic strategy has been faring over the past year. Benn responds:
“It [their basic strategy] has, without doubt, become more intense. The relentless march of academisation and associated official propaganda: the forced academy battles with certain primary schools; the 'back to the fifties' style curriculum; the ongoing draining of finance and political influence from local authorities; the assault on teachers, their conditions and their morale; the clear signal that for-profit schools are on the way... Tactically, the strategy has been to pick off school by school, area by area, so parents and governors and teachers often don't know what is going on in the rest of the country unless they are very well informed or linked up to a campaign group […]
But I sense that Gove and his advisers are becoming a little trigger happy, a touch reckless. Power and its mix of ongoing terror (of failure and of being found out) and an often deep-rooted complacency does something strange to people. The leak to the Daily Mail concerning the 'return to O levels' was a PR disaster, particularly when Gove partially retracted the proposal when pushed in the Commons. Also, the timing of it was peculiarly insensitive, with thousands of teenagers toiling away at their GCSEs while the Secretary of State tells them that, in effect, their qualifications – and their schools, and their teachers – leave a lot to be desired.
Benn also addresses the role of Ofsted, “a major player in the educational battles”; the possibilities offered by projects such as “Learning Without Limits”, which has been tried and tested at Wroxham primary school in Hertfordshire; the potential for disaster if we take Mossbourne as a model for all schools and the responses from the teaching unions.