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Melissa Benn's School Wars—reviews, debates and interviews

Kishani Widyaratna 8 September 2011

School Wars, Melissa Benn's impassioned exploration of the inequalities of our current education system, has been reviewed in the Guardian by Andy Beckett and in the Observer by Anthony Seldon.

Finding Benn's "measured tone refreshing, in a debate usually full of denunciations", Andy Beckett engaged with her position in the book:

Benn already finds the status quo - if the ever-shifting world of English education can be said to have one - alarming. With the fluent indignation of the committed activist, she writes: "Most state schools occupy an uncomfortable space between public and private; they are neither business enterprises, nor a robust public service ...

Driven by league tables, [they] are expected to deliver ever higher standards and improved results without the necessary resources, judged against far more selective or far better resourced schools." Alongside this bracing polemic runs a warmer current of idealism about what state education can achieve: "A good local school is a mix of self-interest and shared interest that transcends, and nullifies, the values of profit and consumption, commerce and customer." When I'm rushing for pick-up at my children's primary, jostling with the other work-fried parents, school life doesn't feel as elevated as that; but from more collaborative school occasions, I know what she means.

Whilst himself a proponent of 'parental choice' in a schools marketplace, Anthony Seldon commended Benn's "powerful vision" and gave high praise in a review for the Observer.

This is a tremendous book. It is a passionate polemic about the most important policy divide of the day, schooling, the area changing more at the hands of the coalition government than any other. It is powerful but also reasonably argued, and avoids the spite which is common in the "school wars".

The book is pithy and benefits from being very well written (as befits the author of two published novels). Melissa Benn's conviction emanates not merely from being on the ideological left; it is informed by her own experience, too.

In addition, Benn has been interviewed by Peter Wilby for the Guardian. In a wide-ranging profile, she emphasised the need to inspire a public affection for the comprehensive system akin to that felt for the NHS.

Education's problems go back to 1944. The NHS became a symbol of common citizenship but education couldn't because it divided 20% of the population from the other 80%. Ed Miliband recently talked of the things that bind us together, but he didn't mention schools. People are always talking about the importance of churches, post offices and pubs to communities, but not about schools. If we make the political weather, we can change that.

At certain points in the profile, Wilby's descriptions of Benn's life and views differed from how she would have herself characterised them. Details of her corrections and commentary can be found on her website.

She was also interviewed for the Huffington Post and discussed, amongst other things, about the nature of education, and whether schools are about more than just grades:

It's more about education being more than just exams. It's about learning about life. You can't measure schools like St Paul's in London and Lilian Baylis in Kennington by the same league table. How can you compare those two schools? The latter is taking children the education system is trying to get rid of and giving them an education and their GCSE results are pretty stellar given their intake. I find league tables pernicious, deceitful and unhelpful. It's crazy to set schools up like rival shops.

Benn has also contributed to a series of debates recently. For the Guardian she took part in a rigorous roundtable debate on the 21st century challenges facing schools in light of the Free School initiative. For Prospect, Melissa engaged in a penetrating debate with Rachel Wolfe, director of the New Schools Network, on the whether Free Schools will raise education standards.

Radio Four's Woman's Hour featured an animated discussion between Melissa and Anne McElvoy, Public Policy Editor for the Economist, on schooling today and how it may develop in future years.

Visit the Guardian to read Andy Beckett's and the Observer to read Antony Seldon's review in full. Visit the Guardian and the Huffington Post to read the interviews in full.

Visit the Guardian and Prospect to read the debates on free schools in full. The Woman's Hour discussion can be heard in full on iplayer or their site.

Filed under: broadcast, interviews, reviews