School Wars

school wars

I’ve just finished reading Melissa Benn’s School Wars. It is a fantastic polemical read which takes you through the history and recent present of school policy in England. I found it hugely valuable to have someone set down so much sense (ie what I believe) about education in when so much of what I hear every day is nonsense.

Benn makes the following main arguments in the book:

  • The media constantly attacks and misrepresents state, and particularly comprehensive, education. The picture that is painted of state education is largely incorrect and those who do the painting largely have little experience of state, comprehensive, education.
  • An important theme in much government policy has been to maintain a divided education system in which different classes are educated separately. In general this has benefitted the rich and disadvantaged the poor. This attempt to separate out different classes is socially divisive and educationally counter-productive.
  • Those in the private school system frequently feel that they know what is wrong with state schooling. However, there is very little evidence to suggest that, when you take away the increased resources and the ability to select for social and educational advantage, private schools perform any better than their state equivalents. Even if they are better it is highly doubtful that their prescriptions for change will work in very different schools with different social mixes and lower levels of resourcing.
  • Politicians are nervous about openly backing systems that seem inequitable, but despite this they have never really backed comprehensive education. There has been a constant tinkering and trimming around the edges of the comprehensive system and the result has been an increasing amount of selection which has tended to operate on a class basis.
  • Education policy has become increasingly centralist and the conception of what education actually is has become increasingly narrow.
  • Education policy over the last twenty years has gradually opened up schools to the private sector. One aspect of this has been various schemes that have sought to subsidise private education through channelling public money into private schools. A second, and probably even more worrying, aspect has been the various policies that have taken educational services or whole schools away from democratic local control and delivered them into the hands of private companies.
  • There is very little evidence that suggests that the array of new types of schools (usually with increased selection and decreased democratic control) or the involvement of private schools or education companies in the running of schools has actually led to any sustained improvements. In fact in general the evidence suggests that many of these new types of schools and alternative funding and governance arrangements have experienced considerable problems in either their pedagogic approach or their business model.

So where does this leave us? Benn says that we need to reinvigorate policies that support a comprehensive education that brings together social classes and delivers mixed ability teaching, that we should also support democratic, local control of schools and refrain from selling off schools to the highest bidder, that we should be sceptical of the solutions offered by those in the private schools and that we should avoid state subsidy of these schools and that we should support increasing professionalisation of school teaching staff and not try and dictate curriculum from the Department for Education.

I’m with her! Some how I doubt that Mr Gove will be.


One comment

  1. […] There is undoubtedly a grain of truth in all of these. However I think that they are all wrapped up in a lot of moral panic fostered by politicians and the media. Typically this kind of panic over-emphasises the effect that different types of schools have as opposed to factors like an individual’s intelligence or the socio-economic background they come from. In fact there is a lot of research that suggests that school effect is pretty small. It also typically runs down state schools by sensationalising incidents where they have failed. Melissa Benn is very good on these sorts of issues in her book School Wars. […]

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