Save Our Schools: An Interview with Melissa Benn


by Russell Bennetts

Melissa Benn is a British journalist and writer. She has written for The Guardian, The London Review of Books, Marxism Today and many other publications. Her most recent book is School Wars: The Battle for Britain’s Education.


Is the comprehensive dream over?


Well yes and no. I think the easy and, in some ways, standard Left answer is that comprehensive education was never allowed to get going and certainly never provided with the conditions to flourish due to a mix of elite resistance, Labour caution and ambivalence, and media hostility. But the more complex, and possibly more interesting, answer is that some of the essential comprehensive arguments have been hijacked by the economic and political Right. I doubt that even a decade ago, you would have had a Tory front bench arguing passionately for high quality all-ability non-selective schools even if that same front bench does have a narrow definition of quality (in my view) and looks to economically efficient Shanghai rather than to fair minded Finland, with its strong state and social democratic traditions, for its model.

But yes, there is a new consensus emerging that we can educate all children together successfully, including our poorest children and I think we – the progressive Left, in the broadest sense – need to capitalise on that without capitulating to other aspects of the economic Right’s argument. The more urgent problem here in the UK, as in the United States, is that the quasi-comprehensive model is being taken over by the private sector, with the potential for profit-making looming clearly. In the US, corporate educational reform is sucking the lifeblood out of an already badly pummelled public education system and I fear that the same thing is going to happen here. Make no mistake, this government is highly politicised and is moving very fast. It is only interested in pushing academies and free schools, a model that mixes rigid centralisation with widespread privatisation. It is using public money and the language of accountability and standards to bribe and bully schools away from local democratic involvement and scrutiny. So in that sense, we are heading, via a cleverly constructed version of the comprehensive dream towards a privatised nightmare.


In School Wars, you describe the 1944 Education Act and the introduction of universal education to Britain as ‘the piecemeal revolution’. What more can you say about why reform did not go further? I’m thinking specifically about the very real opportunity at the end of World War II for Britain to abolish private schools.


Well, actually, by the ‘piecemeal revolution’, I meant the slighter later phase, from the ’60s onwards, when comprehensive schools were introduced but the system itself never became truly comprehensive, for a host of complex reasons. I would number among these reasons the political elite’s view – unconsciously held, in many ways – that the middle class has to be provided with a superior/safe and somewhat separate education within the state system. Hence the continuation of grammar schools, the new significance of faith schools, particularly during the ’90s, and the general pervasiveness of selection within our system that maintains a de facto segregation in many, not all, of our schools.

And, of course, that connects to the second part of your question: why were the private schools not abolished at their weakest point at the end of World War II? In part, it must have been down to the enduring power of elite traditions within the English psyche and body politic. It would have needed the Tories to lead the way, on the grounds that the establishment always prefers to reform itself but, interestingly, not a single Labour MP voted for a key amendment which would have required all children to attend a local authority ( i.e. state) school. So there appeared to be no appetite for real change even from Labour.

But whatever the reasons, it was a historic missed opportunity. If private education had been phased out then, our system would look very different today.


I see your point about appeasing the middle class with grammar schools and suchlike. However, we don’t really see the equivalent with the NHS. How so?


Yes I think that’s a really interesting point, although there is private insurance and private healthcare etc., and increasingly so. But I think you touch on a bigger point which is the connection between schooling and class identity. Where you have your ingrowing toe nail treated or even where you get chemotherapy does not define you. Where you go to school and who you go to school with, still does. Although, I sense that changing now. I sense a move away from the ‘private is best, state school is crap’ agenda, and that cheers me up. People can see that a lot of selective schools are narrow, stifling and don’t set you up for the modern world. And, in the case of private education, you have to pay for these non privileges!


How pervasive is academic selection today and why is this a problem?


Well, the private schools still academically select, although, from what I can work out, it’s only the top ones that really sift out applicants. A lot of private schools will accept pretty much anyone who can pay; the aim being for parents to educate their children in smaller classes, with guaranteed group of peers. Within the state sector, there are the grammars of course. There are 165 remaining – but the government plans to expand them on the quiet. Many parents tutor their children for years in order to pass the eleven plus, and no surprise that it is largely the well-off who get through the exam and then take advantage of a free selective education, and yet the myth persists that grammars promote social mobility!

Also, there are other kinds of selection in the system: specialist schools, of which there are thousands, have the right to select 10% by aptitude in a particular subject (although most don’t do it). No-one has yet discovered the difference between ability and aptitude! It is generally considered a way to top-up the school with a more motivated or middle class strand of pupils.

Why is it a problem? In short, because ultimately it confirms social inequality and the schooling divide, and does not solve the biggest and most enduring problem of our system: that our poorest children get the poorest education. As long as we let schools choose their pupils, they will be tempted to choose the pupils most likely to succeed academically. The ones most likely to succeed academically are going to be the ones from homes with books, conversation and opportunities. Those least likely to succeed tend not to do so well in academic or aptitude selection tests so they are likely to end up in poorer resourced, poorly regarded schools.

We have to break this cycle somehow and I believe that stopping academic selection, which is really social selection, in state education is one key way.

Holyhead High School, Caergybi. Opened in 1949, it was the first comprehensive school in the UK.


What can the (British) Left do then to combat academies, free schools and their ilk?


Well, it’s a big debate at the moment. There are those who are campaigning on the ground, particularly against the undemocratic nature of conversion, and in particular the speed and lack of consultation. These struggles are happening around the country: parent groups and teachers are outraged at the way their schools are being passed over to ‘other providers’ almost overnight. I have just been emailed about a demonstration taking place in a Yorkshire town tomorrow over plans to convert a popular local comprehensive into an academy. This sort of thing is happening all the time.

Others are trying to make the argument at a national level, and I suppose I come into that group. In many ways, I feel I am trying, in the first instance, to explain to people what Michael Gove’s “quiet revolution” really means: the transfer of public monies from local authorities to stand-alone schools, the increasing role of the big educational chains, and the lack of transparency in many aspects of the governance of academies and free schools. Each one is governed by a separate funding contract with the government, and it has recently been announced that some free schools can vary their admissions arrangements but we don’t know what those variations are. It’s a highly complex and increasingly undemocratic mess.

Of course, then there is the quite alarming government silence around so many excellent comprehensive or community schools. This government is only interested in the ‘new model’ school, that’s quite clear, and there’s a clear parallel here with what is happening the USA where official or corporate support for charter schools is eating away at the idea of quality public (state) education. In my worst moments, I think that’s part of the government’s plan, to make the whole system so divided and so complex that no one can get a handle on it, let alone begin to influence it.

But there is another conversation starting up, with an eye possibl, to a future Labour administration or – who knows – a more progressive coalition. Here, the debate is: how could we bring schools back to some kind of local, meaningful accountability and collaboration while honouring the autonomy necessary to get on and do the job? It is interesting, actually, to look back at the administrative terms of the 1944 settlement. Leaving aside the damaging grammar/secondary modern divide, there was a lot of sense in this arrangement: government made the few, big decisions;  local authorities were responsible for organisational aspects regarding groups of schools in their areas; and individual schools were left to get on with the job of teaching and learning according to their diverse school populations. We will have to return to such a model sometime in the future, with a local layer responsible for the key question of equity of access, the single most important issue not yet  properly tackled, in our school system. You simply can’t have Whitehall directly responsible for 20,000 separate schools. Chaos would ensue!


I visited the protest camp against the conversion of Pimlico School into an academy and certainly there was real anger towards such an unwanted change. And yet, still the council forced it through. How about a shift towards a Bash Street Kids-inspired protest strategy: tieing Toby Young’s shoelaces together, for instance, or lining Michael Gove’s suit with itching powder?


Well that would be a novel approach! Although, Toby Young is such a brilliant self-publicist I suspect his ‘tied shoelace’ story would soon be on all the  front pages of the newspapers before you know it, taken as proof of a dastardly ‘Reds Under the Beds’  sabotage policy.

But you touch on something important: how do we get our point across? How do we make people realise what is happening? How do we broadcast our vision in a way that appeals?

Well, it may be reckless pre-Christmas cheer on my part but I think things are shifting a little. People sense that this current policy is unworkable and unfair. £600 million for free schools while local schools struggle to maintain funding levels for the education of thousands of vulnerable children? It’s not right and they know that. At the same time, a British Social Attitudes survey has just come out arguing that most parents think ‘you should send your child to a local school’! Also, ‘Examboardgate’, the story about exam boards telling teachers what was coming up in exams, shows that too much testing leads to a narrow and possibly corrupt school accountability system.

The real way to get our point across is not just to say, “this won’t work”, or to get out the itching powder, but to show in practical form, how it could all be very different. One of the things I’ll be doing next year is hooking up with the international educational community in order to publicise other successful school models, such as the Finnish school system, one of the highest performing in the world, or the excellent school system in the province of Alberta, Canada.

When people come to understand that a local school can be of a truly high quality, radically improve the learning opportunities for our poorest children AND actually be quite simple in terms of its operation, then a post-Coalition consensus could fall into place. Michael Gove and co. will certainly be scratching their heads then!

About the Author

Russell Bennetts founded Berfrois in 2009.