School Wars: The Battle for Britain's Education

The story of the struggle for Britain’s schools, and a passionate call for education as a public good.
School Wars tells the story of the struggle for Britain’s education system. Established during the 1960s and based on the progressive ideal of good schools for all, the comprehensive system has over the past decades come under sustained attack from successive governments. 

From the poorest comprehensives to the most well-resourced independent schools, School Wars takes a forensic look at the inequalities of our current system, the damaging impact of spending cuts, the rise of “free schools” and the growth of the private sector in education. Melissa Benn explores, too, the dangerous example of US education reform, where privatization, punitive accountability and the rise of charter schools have intensified social, economic and ethnic divisions. 

The policies of successive British governments have been muddled and confused, but one thing is clear: that the relentless application of market principles signals a fundamental shift from the ideal of quality education as a public good, to education as market-controlled commodity. Benn ends by outlining some key principles for restoring strong educational values within a fair, non-selective public education system.


  • “In this polemic, Benn sets herself up as a one-woman commission of inquiry, analyzing the social, political, and financial case for comprehensive schooling in a climate of spending cuts and a culture of privatization.”
  • “This is a tremendous book. It is a passionate polemic about the most important policy divide of the day … It is powerful but also reasonably argued … [and] marks her out as one of Britain’s foremost advocates of comprehensive education.”
  • “Benn’s book could well be an important watershed. It is a clear-sighted re-statement of why universal, comprehensive education is – obviously – the best option. It should, and hopefully will, be taken as a rallying call to the left.”
  • “An exceptionally well-informed, cogent, and spirited account of the debates over secondary education in Britain.”
  • “If you read just one book on education this year, then make sure it’s School Wars by Melissa Benn. Brilliantly researched and compellingly written.”
  • “A partisan but surprisingly fair book … Alongside the bracing polemic runs a warmer current of idealism about what state education can achieve.”
  • “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.”
  • “Lucid [and] strongly committed … Benn’s crucially timely account is full of insight about how privatisation and examination-led schools maintain and lead to further systemic social division. Yet her book is not an analysis born of, or leading to, despair or inaction … [but] redolent with humane faith and a belief that public services should remain within the remit of a dynamic democratic state, at every level.”
  • “What Melissa Benn’s superb, evidence-based history of the educational battleground during the second half of the last century proves is that today comprehensives are mainly Good or Outstanding.”
  • School Wars is a book that touches nerves in the English education system. It probes the way in which differences for young people show themselves and exposes so much of the rhetoric in a world where we take extreme variation in opportunity and outcome for granted. Melissa Benn raises the sorts of questions that have needed answering for a long time and offers much food for thought to those with responsibility at every level.”
  • “Superb … School Wars provides ample evidence that an approach to education inspired by the free market, and founded on a competition in which the dice are loaded is deleterious, regressive and unjust. If this book is read as widely as it deserves to be, the author will have started a conversation that might just arrest this trajectory.”
  • “Benn’s book is a powerful combination of history, contemporary analysis and prospectus, seeking to explain why comprehensives have fallen out of favour in recent years and why England needs a revival of the comprehensive ideal … This is both a timely analysis and a serious warning which no-one should ignore.”
  • “A wake-up call for so many of the population who may not realise just how much the school system has been fragmented.”
  • “A beautifully written and concise history of comprehensive education.”
  • “Melissa Benn has written a timely, useful and highly readable account of issues around education in Britain.”
  • “Evangelistic – in the best sense of that word. I thoroughly commend School Wars to all those who, like me, are concerned about the imminent destruction of our state education system.”
  • “Melissa Benn has given the defenders of equitable education for the whole community, not just the chosen few, some powerful ammunition.”
  • “Melissa Benn deserves – demands – to be read. This is a passionate but well made argument for universal public education to promote every child's chances – not just for them, but for us.”
  • “A passionate defence of comprehensive schools.”


  • The welfare state we’re in – A reading list for the present class war

    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.

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  • Philosophy Football - January Competition!

    Enter this month's competition to win Philosophy Football's new Eton Rifles T-shirt and a copy of four of the outfitter's favorites from Verso's 2012 catalogues.

    The self-styled "sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction," aka Philosophy Football, recently launched the Eton Rifles T- shirt. The song Eton Rifles was cited by David Cameron as one of his favorites, the lines of which include:

    Thought you were clever when you lit the fuse
    Tore down the House of Commons in your brand new shoes

    "Which part of it didn't he get?" Paul Weller responded, "It wasn't intended as a f-ing jolly drinking song for the cadet corps." Weller has since not been awarded a knighthood in the New Years Honors List.

    We have five of the T-shirts to be won in the January competition, with one lucky winner also getting a copy of School Wars, The Rebirth of History, A New Kind Of Bleak and In Defense of The Terror.

    To enter simply answer this question: Eton Rifles was inspired by Eton schoolboys abusing an early 1980s Right to Work March. In the 1930s the Communist Party led a mass movement against unemployment spearheaded by the Hunger Marches. These marches and the direct action that supported them were organised by the NUWM- what did the letters 'NUWM" stand for?

    Email your answer with your full name, address and preferred T-shirt size to admin@philosophyfootball.com. No purchase necessary to enter. Entries close 31 January 2013.

  • It’s not child’s play: Melissa Benn’s School Wars one year on

    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.


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