Comprehensive Myths: Berfrois Interviews Melissa Benn (Again)



by Russell Bennetts and Matthew Law

Melissa Benn is a journalist and author, a campaigner for high-quality comprehensive education and a founder of the Local Schools Network. Her latest book, The Truth About Our Schools: Exposing the Myths, Exploring the Evidence, was co-written with Janet Downs, a retired secondary school teacher.

What is your assessment of Michael Gove’s four years running the Department for Education?

Gove was an erudite, energetic and excitable Secretary of State. He certainly got people talking. (He is doing the same now at the Ministry of Justice.) Gove was also absolutely convinced that his way was the right way, promoting a simplistic but provocative argument about what needed to be done. This can be summarised as follows: dismiss any depressing left-leaning ideas that there might actually be a link between wider inequality and educational performance; get schools away from local authorities and into charitable or semi- private hands; bring back knowledge into schools (as if it ever went away); bring back discipline; introduce a range of competitive practices into schooling, including Performance Related Pay, supposedly to increase teacher performance; marginalise the so-called Blob, which included university teacher trainers, teacher unions, and anyone else in favour of what was clumsily characterised as ‘progressive’ education.

In the first years of his New School Revolution, with the introduction of free schools and the mass conversion of academies, there was a real sense among Gove’s warriors that they were leading the charge for progressive [sic] change. A prominent and vocal group supported the reforms, including journalist Toby Young (remember we talked about him when you last interviewed me – he was everywhere; he has gone rather quiet now), Katherine Birbalsingh, who now runs her own school in Wembley, and Rachel Wolf of the New Schools Network, now working for David Cameron at Number 10. A tranche of young Gove-supporting teachers began to write about how useless state education has always been and how it could be fixed with a dose of traditionalism.

The one good thing about Gove was that he grasped the harmful nature of selection (although in practice he faced both ways on the grammars) and the potential of comprehensive education. A powerful part of the right became militant and vocally opposed to the eleven-plus and the expansion of more grammars, convinced by the arguments that selection suppresses social mobility. I would argue that, even though things have changed a bit since the election, and there is a move by many Tory MPs to expand grammar provision, this conversion of many within the Conservative party to the possibilities of non-selective education remains a significant moment in educational and political history. It’s something we need to hold onto if we want to build a widespread consensus for high quality comprehensive education.

However, in most other respects, Gove went too far. He alienated too many in the schools world and teachers disliked him. Polling showed he was massively unpopular, so Cameron, with an eye to winning the general election (I hear he did well), replaced him in the summer of 2014. In one sense, being sacked was to Gove’s advantage. The energy of the new schools revolution has significantly diminished, and all the problems attendant on enormous, ill-thought-out structural reform are beginning to show. Plus, there are now real-term cuts to education budgets. These are all problems that Nicky Morgan, Gove’s successor, is having to deal with.

As we point out in our book, The Truth About Our Schools, all the evidence points to maintained schools doing marginally better than the absurdly hyped academies and free schools (both of them versions of the independent state school model). Plus, the idea that private schools can help bring the poor benighted state sector up to scratch has been damaged, with many private schools, at one remove, simply not capable of running schools of such a different character. More widely, other countries that have gone down the more competitive route in terms of public (state) school reform,

like Sweden and the United States, no longer seem the glowing model suggested by the political right back in 2010.

In short, the wheels have dropped off Gove’s blunderbuss!

How does Nicky Morgan compare?

If I say that I am not sure, then that probably tells you something important. Morgan seems competent and courteous, but does not have Gove’s driving purpose or overarching world view about school reform. She was appointed, in the first place, to appear more emollient, especially in relation to teachers. One of her first tasks was to launch a consultation on workload. Thousands of teachers responded, but I am not sure what has happened since then. Otherwise, I can’t think of a particular initiative that is associated with her apart from the ill-advised decision to agree with the annex to the grammar school in Sevenoaks. Just to recap: it is illegal to open a new selective school. It has been since 1998. But parental campaigners and Kent council, keen to increase grammar provision in their county, have come up with the idea of opening a new school, ten miles from the original institution, and calling it an annex. Morgan approved the proposal. The fear is that it will open the floodgates to many similar applications, confirming (rather than moving away) from a two-tier state education system. Bad move, Nicky.

Those who know Morgan better say she is highly ambitious and believe she could be a future leader of the Tory party. This may have played a part in her decision to agree to the Sevenoaks annex, as a significant number of Tory MPs are in favour of more grammar provision.

Your book deals with eight myths about education:

1. Comprehensive education has failed.

2. Local authorities control and hold back schools.

3. Choice, competition and markets are the route to educational success.

4. Choice will improve educations in England: the free school model.

5. Academies raise Standards.

6. Teachers don’t need qualifications.

7. Private schools have the magic DNA.

8. Progressive education lowers standards.

Where did these myths come from? Who propagates them?

We could have found more. Where do these come from? Interesting question. A variety of sources, really. The first is what I call the foundational myth, this idea that comprehensive education has been a failure. This has been around for decades and goes so deep – for some – that one will hear it parroted in a multitude of slap-happy ways. For example, I remember when my children were on the cusp of secondary education and parents all around me were in a state about what school to choose, and one would often hear a parent say, quite casually, “I don’t see why we should be forced to choose the failing comprehensive” or “Why should I choose the local comprehensive instead of a good school?” There were so many assumptions and slippages within even such short statements that I saw how deeply the prejudice had gone. These were often individuals who knew very little, empirically speaking, about local schools or education in general.

Of course, one doesn’t have to be Miss Marple to see where some of it comes from. In the opening paragraph of the chapter of the book, we give examples of some of the press headlines one regularly reads. Almost all have ‘failing’ or ‘failure’ lodged in there somewhere. We also look at a range of journalistic writings. What some columnists wrote was insanely hilarious. Perhaps my favourite phrase ever comes from the novelist Tony Parsons who claimed that going to a comprehensive is ‘a start in life right up there with dying at the Somme.’ My jaw still drops whenever I read that quote; it’s basically saying that comprehensive education is a fate worse than death!

Some of the myths one can quite easily find circulating in newspapers and broadcast media. ‘Local authorities control and hold back schools’ – well, this has just become something that politicians and some writers repeat, without thinking. It simply isn’t true and we quickly show why that is.

Some of the other myths are more recent and in some ways more subtle. Take, for instance, the idea that ‘choice, competition and markets are the route to educational success’; this claim has several strands, so we break it down into a number of areas, looking first at the international evidence, then at the free schools, then at the extravagant claims about academies. To take these in order, when Gove first become Secretary of State for Education, he was always talking about the Swedish experiment in free schools. He stopped doing that after a couple of years, because the evidence simply didn’t add up any more.

As for our own free schools, there is mounting evidence that not only do many of these face as many, if not more, problems than the schools they were designed to replace (and this isn’t to knock any school in particular, just to say that there are no magic bullets for school reform), but the freedoms given to free schools have created their own problems, and, of course, made the job of existing schools more difficult. There have been numerous cases of people taking over education who have no experience and others who seem…er…to be making rather a lot of money from their so-called philanthropy.

In the chapter on academies, we draw on the research of our brilliant colleague at the Local Schools Network, Henry Stewart, who has consistently shown that academies do not outperform the ‘maintained’ sector (that is, those much maligned schools that still exist broadly under a local authority umbrella); in fact, it is the other way round. Maintained secondaries and primaries are doing slightly better than the not-so-shiny new models.

Overall, the aim of the book was to demolish lazy or wrong thinking with very careful, step-by-step evidence and argument. I think we’ve done a pretty good job, and produced a neat, pocket size instrument in aid of those who want to assert truth over myth, whether at school, local, national or international level.

Is the increase in testing, particularly at primary level, helping or harming our children?

Overall, I take the view that intellectual and creative ambition are very important and that children of all ages should be really engaged in learning. That must be the prime aim. It really, really annoys me when I hear of teachers or schools that don’t provide a stimulating environment and just let students, of all kinds, ‘coast.’ That’s not what I call comprehensive education.

But is constant testing the way to get that? Should teachers be compelled to teach reading using phonics? Is the new curriculum, with its emphasis on grasping key mathematical concepts at a relatively young age, and its mass of historical knowledge (of a quite narrow kind), the way forward?

There are three main worries here. Firstly, that too much, too early is not the right way for any child. Critics point to more successful systems, like Finland, that start formal education much later, and introduce key mathematical concepts through more engaging project work. Here, we are putting in place ‘baseline assessments’ from an extremely young age and the testing goes on from there.

Secondly, some children are never going to get it; they are simply not going to flourish in this new academic-lite system. They are never going to learn how to spell ‘accommodate’ and ‘rhythm’ correctly by age ten or eleven (it took me until I was forty-something to get those right and even now I need spell check) and it’s not good to discourage them so young.

Lastly, schools are being judged on how well their students do at tests of all kinds, from primary school tests through to the English Baccalaureate (EBacc); a poor result at any stage can lead to heads rolling and, possibly, a lot more unnecessary change. But what is often being tested is the intake, not the teaching, so in the name of high expectation you create institutional chaos and widespread demoralisation. There has to be a more flexible way of ensuring that high standards are met and a good education provided, which must mean greater recognition of the context of any particular school.

Put this against a background of lowered funding, a crisis in place planning, a crisis in teacher recruitment and the return of grammars (a move spearheaded by back-bench Tory MPs), and it’s hard to think this is coherent programme for improvement.

Do education researchers and teaching unions have enough input into the current educational direction of state schools?

Well, to take the unions first – no, they do not. Trade unions, in general, have been pretty well marginalised by governments for decades, going back to Thatcherism. New Labour had a deep distrust of them too, seeing it as a case of ‘producer capture.’ New Labour thought that teachers were too oriented to their own interests rather than that of students and parents. (Interestingly, one hears similar arguments from Tory ministers about the junior doctors.) And, of course, Gove and co. froze them out completely.

Obviously, there are a range of unions, representing different groups and taking very different positions (it feels quite different to speak at an ASCL conference compared to an NUT event, something I know having spoken at both), but they have all responded pretty well in the circumstances.

On the one hand, they have tried to represent their members’ interests as national agreements governing pay and conditions are shredded before their eyes. On the other hand, they have been thinking out loud about the system as a whole and how it should develop. Sensible politicians would take note of their ideas and bring them in for talks.

In terms of education researchers – well, it really depends on which researchers you are talking about. Any education researcher who is considered part of the Gove’s Blob – his collective name given, very loosely, to more progressive thinkers – is not listened to at all by the current government ( and not enough by Labour, in my view, although that might change). Anyone representing what I call the Blab, the new coalition that has emerged since 2010, certainly has the ear of the powerful.

There is, however, a third, and quite interesting, group that has emerged in recent years, which is teachers themselves. Many of them, at both primary and secondary level, have started to get together, through informal groupings, on Twitter and other social media, to meet at conferences to share research and ‘good practice.’ Groups like ResearchEd and Northern Rocks. This has arisen from a number of frustrations including having to deal with rushed reform to lack of meaningful CPD (Continuing Professional Development). Watch this space, I say.

What will your brother’s education policies be when he becomes Labour leader?

Labour and its leaders have a real chance over the next few years to develop a distinct and progressive alternative education policy and a wealth of thoughtful, experienced people happy to help them develop these ideas to the full.  (I hear that Hilary Benn has a sister with a bit of interest in this area…)

About the Authors:

Russell Bennetts is the editor of Berfrois. Matthew Law is a primary school teacher in Leicestershire.