Tuesday, October 25, 2011

All in it Together

In her book, School Wars: The Battle for Britain’s Education (Verso), Melissa Benn mounts an impassioned defence of universal education, the idea that every child - whatever their background - deserves a serious education with the same high expectations. Along the way, she catalogues the failed opportunities, the obsession with targets and tables and the denigration of comprehensive education meted out by successive governments.

Benn begins by detailing the depressing litany of muddled thinking and ideological idiocy of the current government. The massive expansion of the academies programme and the introduction of free schools – essentially private schools funded from the public purse and accountable only to central government – is a deliberate attempt to phase out local democratic control. If the free schools follow the experience of their Swedish model, Benn warns, it will simply usher in venture capitalists and individuals with dubious motives. The desire of the education secretary, Michael Gove, to impose upon schools the curriculum of a 1950s grammar has resulted in the English Baccalaureate, a narrow set of subjects that excludes Music and Art; and a new preoccupation with prep school Latin, seen as a key feature of the West London Free School of that Tory twerp Toby Young, is a strong indicator of where current thinking on education is coming from. Interestingly, Benn points out, the dominant concern of the traditional education establishment during the debate on the introduction of comprehensive education during the 1960s was to protect the teaching of Latin. Clearly, this is more about social status than being able to read Virgil in the original.

Since the 1944 Education Act created a compulsory and free education system for all, the story of comprehensive education has been one of missed opportunities and the compounding of a system of apartheid. The 1944 act created winners and losers broadly along class lines: grammars for those who passed the 11+ and secondary moderns for those who did not; but class lines were not always reliable and middle class children who failed the 11+ were consigned to the secondary moderns to the horror of their parents. The effect of this was twofold: nearly dead private schools were unwittingly revived – 11+ failures boosted their admissions – and the Tories lost the 1964 General Election on the issue; but this push from the middle classes for a universal education system was not capitalised on. Comprehensive education was introduced in the 60s and 70s but selection was never abolished. In areas where selection still existed, grammar school places became much prized; and they still are today. After private schools, grammars are where the wealthy want to send their children. In places such as Kent and Buckinghamshire, where selection still exists, the middle classes have colonised the grammars. Only they can afford the property prices that spiral in the catchments of these schools and only they can afford to coach and tutor their kids through the 11+; and the continued existence of this system distorts the intake in the comprehensives in these counties: they are in fact old-style secondary moderns. Whereas in the post war years grammar schools provided a limited opportunity for social mobility for bright working class kids, the economic muscle of the middle classes means there is no such opportunity today. What would increase social mobility is a genuinely comprehensive system – truly all in it together – that we have never had.

More recent history has eroded the comprehensive ideal further. Tory education acts of the late 80s and early 90s introduced the National Curriculum, league tables and SATs. League tables pitted selective state schools against those with the broad intake of community schools – this was nonsense and, the fact that they could not compete, began the denigration of comprehensives. New Labour, with Alistair Campbell’s revealing phrase “bog standard comprehensive” and the choice of Blair and Harman to send their children to selective schools across London from their homes, further compounded the demonization of universal education; and when Diane Abbot sent her child to a private school, the message was clear. However, there was investment in buildings and an improvement in results under New Labour. The national rate of students achieving five good GCSEs rose from 45% in 1997 to 60% today; but this slavery to league tables merely meant the focus was all on that 15% in the middle and schools continue to routinely pour all their resources into their borderline students. The ones at the top end will still excel with a standard level of teaching and learning but those at the bottom..? The 40% who don’t get five good GCSEs are written off and these will inevitably be the most deprived and vulnerable; but to those making the decisions this does not matter. Benn quotes the radical academic Danny Dorling’s condemnation of the belief of the powerful “that just a few children are sufficiently able to be fully educated, and only a few of those are then able to govern”. When Benn speaks at the Oxford Union she is seriously asked by an undergraduate why we need to educate everybody when someone needs to sweep the streets. Depressing.

New Labour’s record on education was not progressive: there was no end to selection but instead they began the fragmentation that is the current threat to the system. They ushered religious groups and the private sector into the stew with their faith schools and academies programme. It is they who have brought us to here, to a hotch potch of swivel-eyed crusaders and religious fanatics running free schools; and even Labour’s new shadow education secretary has ruled out total opposition to the free schools programme. The private sector is becoming increasingly involved: for-profit organisations are circling the free school movement and the increase in the academies programme will see an expansion in business sponsors. One academy that Benn visits in Manchester is merely a vocational factory turning out workers for the nearby airport. This is in effect state-subsidised privatisation and an indication of the mindset that has taken hold in recent years: learning for its own sake is wasted on some and they are only fit to be educated for work. In the real education private sector, public schools are keen to preserve the charitable status which gives them annual tax relief to the tune of £100 million - of taxpayer’s money. Much is made of their partnerships with state schools but this is merely window dressing. Private schools do not explicitly bar entry to anyone but as Benn points out “freedom of entry is on a par with the welcome that Harrods or the Island of Mustique extend to your average UK family”. What fee paying parents really want is their children to be educated away from state school kids.

The current landscape makes the post war years of grammars and secondary moderns look lean and ordered by comparison. Community schools, grammars, academies, faith schools, free schools, independents – all in the name of the ubiquitous notion of choice; and the truth is they present no choice to most. This bewildering fragmentation will only be navigated by those with the greatest means and the sharpest elbows. Most will settle for a school with little knowledge of how its resources are being drained to support more ideologically-driven areas of the education system. Benn uses the example of Finland, where the achievement gap between social classes is the narrowest in the world. Their system is simple: there is no choice; all children attend their local school which is inevitably, because of equality of resources and a balanced intake, a good school. Their system does not “pit child against child or school against school”. Our education system has constantly sought to segregate children. Even in the community school where I work, the core subjects of English, Maths and Science set children by ability from the age of 11. This results in students with special educational needs and those from the poorest backgrounds being in the lowest ability groups. This is despite evidence that the highest-performing systems delay setting and streaming until later in adolescence and the poorest performing national systems divide their pupils at too young an age. As Benn says, mixed-ability teaching “offers the fairest and overall most effective method of learning, certainly in the early years of secondary education”.

We should all be interested in what Melissa Benn has to say about education; at the close she asks “will we – parents, citizens, taxpayers – stand by as one of our most vital public services passes into hands of venture capitalists, hedge fund managers and a growing array of faith groups?” The answer has to be emphatically no but, as Benn points out, our state schools have never been held with the same public regard as the NHS and this has not stopped our system of universal healthcare edging towards fragmentation and privatisation. So, we must fight back, and defend and promote the idea of comprehensive education because, as Benn says, “the alternative scenario…is too frightening to contemplate.”

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