In the UK this month austerity has revealed itself to be in the mode of naked class war. Monday began with welfare reforms, the introduction of the notorious bedroom tax and reductions in the access to Legal Aid. These attacks will be followed in the coming weeks by the replacing of disability living allowance with a personal independence payment policed by Atos, the reduction in the 50p tax rate (providing tax cuts to the rich) and the introduction of the controversial Universal Credit scheme. Combined with other aspects of late capitalism (from food prices to housing shortages) the reality of life in austerity Britain is uglier than it has been for some time.
With textbook ideological manoeuvring these assaults have been accompanied by a rhetoric designed to divide the working classes between “workers and shirkers.” To the chorus of the right wing press, statements, such as this one by Liam Fox or this from Iain Duncan Smith, ultimately aim to crush the possibility of an organized resistance. Most revealing this week has been efforts by the right wing to frame the horrific Philpott manslaughter as a result of ‘benefit dependency.’ Almost beyond belief, this story’s beginnings in the Daily Mail and right wing blogs were reinforced yesterday with this statement from the grubbiest man on earth: Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne.
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.
Teachers in London are gearing up to strike next week over pensions and teachers in Newcastle will walk out on Thursday over planned changes to school term times. It is clear that many people working in the education system feel under attack due to huge cuts and changes being implemented by the Coalition government. Among the host of new measure, perhaps the most controversial is the introduction of so-called 'free schools' which can be run by parents, charities, religious groups and, most worryingly, private businesses.
This week, Shadow Education Secretary Stephen Twigg argued that the government should be funding places in primary schools, rather than free schools, arguing that the equivalent of 2,000 primary schools' worth of children - some 450,000 - need to be found places in England's schools by 2015. He accuses the government of ignoring the growing problem and claims that much of the money promised for new places has been already ear-marked for free schools - the majority of which are secondaries where pupil numbers are falling.
The battle for the future of Britian's education system seems to be reaching fever pitch. It is in this context that Melissa Benn, author of School Wars: the Battle for Britain's Education, has written a diary for the New Statesman of her own struggles to defend comprehensive education and the democratically elected local organisations that facilitate it, by bringing her argument to a wider public. She writes about meeting concerned parents and teachers all over the country, being personally denounced by Michael Gove, and how to continue the fight for fair education.
Melissa Benn, author of the acclaimed School Wars: The Battle for Britain's Education, has written an article for the Guardian tackling Michael Gove's obsession with using the American charter schools movement as a model for his breakneck paced reform of the British education system, as following a "dangerous template".
The main problem in adopting charter schools as a guide, for Benn, is that while people have heard of the American charter schools, they actually know little about their operational context and the impact they have on state schools. She unveils the true context of charter schools:
The model goes something like this: a set of new schools, apparently dedicated to radically improved education of the poor, is set up in competition to existing public provision. Heavily backed by corporate or philanthropic interests, with some working on a "for profit" basis, they are reliant on high-stakes results, strict discipline, a punitive approach to teachers and unions, and tend to have more control over their admissions, higher rates of exclusion, and to take fewer students with special needs or those for whom English is not their first language.
Meanwhile, public (state) schools, many suffering toxic spending cuts, drowning in often unjustified public and political criticism, must continue to educate anyone who comes through their gates, making the alternative new model look shinier still. Yet many still provide an outstanding education, particularly in deprived areas. Sound familiar?"