Melissa Benn: School Wars and street wars

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In an article for the Guardian, Melissa Benn illuminates the link between the crisis facing Britain's education system, and the recent rioting across the UK.

Benn, author of the forthcoming School Wars: The Battle for Britain's Education, examines the inequality between education for the rich, and education for the poor. She argues that the effects of this divisive issue can be seen as starting to manifest themselves in the social unrest of last week.

Street wars. School wars. We cannot, surely, directly link our much-debated state education system and the chaos we saw in our cities last week. Or can we? The political right has not held back from doing so.

Too often, political leaders blame neighbourhood schools for our social ills, when the truth is that these schools are educating our poorest children, in the most difficult circumstances. Community and comprehensive schools are barely mentioned on the Department for Education website, which now continually emphasises a free schools and academies programme. But community schools will surely play a vital role in the months and years to come, to bring neighbourhoods together, in the wake of this summer's events.

As education and youth service cuts implemented by the coalition take hold, the crisis facing our education system looks set to become even more pertinent in the coming years. Inevitably, it is the poor and disadvantaged who are disproportionately affected by such developments, creating further divides in our already fractious and volatile society. 

As well as real-term cuts in education spending, community schools are facing declining revenue and disruptive structural reform, and as a result the private sector will end up taking a much bigger role in our education system. What then, can be done? Benn makes a passionate case for renewing the comprehensive education system:

We need to keep arguing about resources, campaigning for smaller classes, a richer curriculum – for all children, not just the academic ones. We need more apprenticeships, more teachers and the best teachers in the most deprived schools. Non-subject specialists concentrating on mechanised delivery and pushing up test results are the worst teachers possible for our most disengaged youth.

And for those who say we can't afford it, look at how much we are spending on policing and a criminal justice service, mopping up the result of social, and school, failure.

So let's have less panic, and hyperbolic talk of punishment. Let the courts do their jobs, while we in civil society recommit ourselves to a fairer school system, the creation of strong, mixed schools in every community. Long ago, that dream was called the comprehensive, a noble ideal persistently smeared, and now smashed up, by the elitist right. But what's in a name? The principle remains, as vital as ever to a fair and sane society.

Visit the Guardian to read the article in full.

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