Blog post

School Wars—the story so far ...

Melissa Benn26 September 2011

For the past month, I have been writing, speaking about and debating the issues that I cover in my new book School Wars.

In the process,I have learned some important things about the way the education debate in particular, and political debate in general, is shaping up in this country.

Let's begin with the politics of silence. An odd place to start, you might think, given the discussion that education continually generates and the good coverage I have received for my book, at least on the left/liberal end of the spectrum. (School Wars has yet to receive a substantive review from the Times, Mail or Telegraph stables.)

But the silence from the right is understandable given that a substantial part of School Wars - and the pro -comprehensive argument in general - convincingly vindicates the non selective principle. Our critics are perfectly well aware that no mainstream political party advocates a return to academic selection or expansion of the grammars. Dividing our children at puberty into winners and losers does not sit comfortably with the values of a democratic society, or not one that claims to be.

But my book, and the comprehensive movement in general, also takes a close look at the causes and consequences of the privatisation of education. Our schools are fast being removed from any meaningful local accountability and scrutiny and in the process are being handed to a range of third sector, charitable and private providers with the potential for profit making further down the line.

So advanced and so politicised is this agenda that comprehensives and community schools no longer even figure on the DFE website and according to recent press reports, many civil servants within the DfE were already unhappy about government policy as early as the autumn of 2010.

The new school providers are not only politically canny and occasionally brutal: they are also suffering from historical amnesia. The active collusion of the political right in denying a decent education to most lower income children, via the poorly resourced secondary modern system, seems now to have been entirely expunged from the historical record.

Yesterday I was aggressively heckled by a Westminster Tory councillor - or two - who appeared to claim that the progressive left was entirely culpable for the inadequate education of poorer children, and that privatisation is the only answer to the problem in the gap in achievement. Clearly, some people have forgotten the frequently appalling record of the Tories when last in government in terms of state education.

But it is the future, not the past, that now most concerns me. What these occasionally unpleasant encounters have brought home to me is just how paternal and closed the new educational and political cultures have become. I now understand what it must feel like to learn and work in some of these schools and how little genuine questioning or debate is allowed. There is a clear official line and you deviate from it at your peril.

The new academy culture may sometimes produce good GCSE results - as I acknowledged at a debate at the RSA yesterday - but many local authority/community comprehensives are doing very well, and have rapidly improved in recent years, often without the scary authoritarian edge of some of the new providers. On our side, we must remain committed to rigorous standards and the drive to improve genuine all round achievement but within more open, democratic and genuinely creative environments.

Meanwhile, serious questions hang over the governance, funding and learning culture in some academies and free schools and that borrow so heavily from the Charter school experiment in the USA.

The Charter school experiment shows where the privatisation agenda is heading if we are not careful. It is not a good example, on so many counts. Many of the schools succeed by cherry picking from among the aspirational poor; there are high rates of attrition within Charters; the most successful depend on large amounts of extra private funding; it is aggressively anti union. And yet, overall, the results picture for Charters is very mixed. Most important of all, as anti reform academic and activist Diane Ravitch points out so cogently, the entire project is doing fatal damage to public - state - education.

A few more observations. How much does the incredible hostility that greets the comprehensive argument, for instance, stem from a profound dislike among the-powers-that-be of socially mixed education? The privatisation plan will increase social and faith segregation in our cities and communities. Much of it is a plan for the separate education of poorer children. Most importantly of all, as I argue in my book, it leaves the overall educational landscape - so profoundly shaped by selection and wealth - untouched.

One sees this reflected in the more personal politics of public debates. While it is open season on those of us who support mixed comprehensives and send our own children there, critics of state education who choose private education for their children are considered untouchable, particularly by the media.

I am not interested in personally attacking anyone. But this does not seem to stop those, like Michael Gove - the current Secretary of State for Education no less - from launching unpleasant broadsides against campaigners like Fiona Millar and myself - and on grounds of social class and alleged professional privilege.

On one level, it's a bloody cheek. Many of us have been campaigning for years to improve state education, certainly far longer than the current clutch of privatising edu-celebs. But on another level, the contempt of the right is simply odd. How warmly we would be welcomed into the right's reforming fold if we sent our children to Westminster or Eton!

Another thought: now much does liberal left support for the free school/academy experiment - as expressed, for example, by a recent Guardian editorial - stem from a form of personal and collective guilt? After all, if you genuinely don't consider comprehensives good enough for your own children and you don't want to join the campaign to improve them, in part because you have chosen private education, then of course the quasi- private school feel of some of the new school providers must seem an attractive conscience-salving option to push for the less well off.

But I return, finally, to the puzzling question of why the government and its allies are so defensive? Could it be, as Francis Beckett suggests, that they believe they have won the academy/privatisation argument so decisively that they simply cannot brook any criticism of it? But that doesn't make sense. The truly secure are always happy to debate.

If, in fact, they are not that confident, do they really hope to write off a growing movement of opposition to their policies by singling out a few individuals for attack? Who knows, perhaps some of those off piste e-mails might one day explain the wrong headed tactics of government and their allies in this regard?

Either way, the School Wars are here to stay for the foreseeable future. I will continue my travels around the country, more determined than ever to defend a properly accountable and local framework for our schools. Make no mistake. We are fighting for something important, in terms of our childrens' education, their future as citizens, who urgently need to learn how to live and work together, and the very future of democracy itself.

Visit the Local Schools Network website to read the article in situ.