In School Wars Melissa Benn lays out in details the increasing privatisation of Britain’s schools, the scale of an impending disaster.
Benn begins by highlighting a 2011 Guardian article which revealed that “civil servants privately advised ministers that schools should be allowed to fail, if government was serious about reform”. The Tories’ vision rests on an ideological belief in a market system which will allow thousands of students in unfashionable schools, the ones with difficult pupil intakes, bolshie staff not keen on pay-and–conditions-smashing privatisation, or parents not willing to allow a local “philanthropist” to have complete control over their child’s education, to be left to rot.
Underfunded, run down and then targeted by a politically-motivated Ofsted, they will be forced to close or privatised (become academies).
Since the book’s publication late last year the “war” has been escalated by the struggle over four Haringey primary schools being forced to become academies against the wishes of heads, staff and parents.
Benn demolishes the idea that academies or private “freedoms” empower schools or improve results, and proves time and again that the way schools show “improvement” is by manipulating their pupil intake. The figures on exclusion rates are particularly telling — academies exclude 82% more pupils than non-academy state schools.
Benn later coolly documents the flagrant corruption of the fat cat scumbags behind the biggest academy chains.
Quoting from an ATL-researched document which received scant attention in the bourgeois press, Benn explains: “In April 2010, E-ACT [a leading education sponsor] whistleblowers revealed how the company’s directors had claimed thousands of pounds of public money for luxury hotel rooms and long-distance taxi journeys; they also used chauffeur driven limousines to visit academies around the country.”
E-ACT got £250 million from Labour government grants. Their director general, who has since resigned, paid himself £280,000 a year and once claimed £1,436 for two nights in hotel suites for him and a colleague. These will be the kind of people with total control of our children’s education within a few years, unless the labour movement fights back.
One section of the book dealing with Manchester Enterprise Academy was particularly terrifying.
Here is a brand new school in a fabulous building with class sizes of 15-20 on average — something teachers can usually only dream of.
This is a “New Labour Academy” — a school set up in a predominantly deprived area with the smug Victorian-era idea that a philanthropist with a head for business is best placed to shape the future lives of Britain’s youth. (As opposed to a “Tory Academy” of mostly middle-class schools, rated “outstanding” by Ofsted, in wealthy areas with few difficult kids, who think that by opting out of their local authority they’ll save a few bob on paying for general council services which mainly benefit students with special educational needs.)
The main sponsor of Manchester Enterprise Academy is Manchester Airport.
The Year 9 students do projects on Leisure and Tourism (I’ve used capital letters because that’s a bona fide subject in schools now, in case you didn’t know); in the sixth form students are offered work experience and placements.
The students are encouraged to think about the “package” of qualifications they need to get a job when they leave school — and of course the set of qualifications on offer is developed in partnership with the school’s sponsor.
This is the future of “education” — training working class people in the basic minimum skills required to do certain jobs; and to make it easier for companies to train particular workers in the basic skills required for their jobs. Why not allow companies to run schools? It all makes sense — if you’re a capitalist.
Teachers know this sort of ideology is creeping into even relatively normal schools, through the introduction of “subjects” such as Workskills, where students study entire units on why working for free is great for developing your CV — softening up a generation of young people to the exploitation of the workfare schemes.
Unfortunately, teacher unions have little to say about it, and the wider labour movement even less so, meaning most teachers — and indeed most public sector workers who see the same erosion of basic social (let alone socialist!) values in their own workplace — simply adapt to the new madness as best they can.
The overview provided by a book such as School Wars is useful as a way of awakening, and potentially using, an undercurrent of dissent which must be present among teachers, students and parents across the country.
And yet the labour movement, certainly the socialist movement, will need its own materials apart from those provided by social democrats like Melissa Benn to win the “war” over education, because, of course, it is a class war, part of the wider class struggle.
This book is too kind to New Labour, and Blair in particular, particularly on pedagogical issues. For example, Benn supports the creativity-stifling “literacy and numeracy hours” in primary schools.
She ends the otherwise excellent chapter on selection and ability issues in schools by supporting a bizarre proposal endorsed by Conservative Future for a “banding” type solution, which I think most socialists would find it hard to
Her history of the movement for comprehensive education in Britain is very unsatisfying.
She admits it wasn’t centrally driven by a Labour government, and praises the odd head of a local council here, radical educationalist there, but the role of a fired-up, post-war working class, fed up with inadequate and unequal social provision in education and other public services, is underplayed. She also strongly denies any link between the movement for comprehensive education and progressive pedagogy, insisting that they are completely separate issues.
Even on the socialist left there is plenty of debate about the validity and limits of some of the “progressive” educational ideas implemented in some schools during the heyday of comprehensive education — but that debate needs to be tackled head on, and we shouldn’t pretend that there isn’t a link between the comprehensive ideal and the creation of space to experiment with different forms of education.
Though School Wars has some of the flaws of a text written by a single-issue-obsessed social democrat, it is essential reading for socialists interested in the frightening future facing Britain’s education system.
We need to rearm the labour movement to organise for an alternative, based on comprehensive educational provision for all young people.