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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.

Reviews

  • “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.”

Blog

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    See also: Professor Akwugo Emejulu's essay on the exclusionary relations at the institutional core of our universities.

    Part 1 of this round-up was published yesterday.


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  • The Future of our Universities: Part 1

    Our universities are at breaking point. Governments have systematically imposed new procedures regulating funding, governance, and assessment, forcing them to behave more like business enterprises in a commercial marketplace than centres of learning. This week on the Verso blog, writers respond to Speaking of Universities, Stefan Collini's cogent analysis of the marketisation of higher education. Speaking of Universities is 40% off until April 2.

    In this post, William Davies, Emma Dowling and Matt Mahon look at tuition fees, care work in the university, and supporting outsourced workers. See also: Professor Akwugo Emejulu's essay on the exclusionary relations at the institutional core of our universities.


    Part 2 of this round-up will follow tomorrow.

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    For our first piece, Professor Akwugo Emejulu argues that when we speak of universities we must speak of the exclusionary relations at their institutional core: "Universities are contradictory spaces. They govern knowledge through hierarchies of control whilst simultaneously providing temporary and contingent spaces to think within and beyond themselves. When speaking of universities, it is imperative that we do not attempt to silence the realities of power that regulate what is legitimate to be known."


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