Berfrois

A National Education Service: Berfrois Interviews Melissa Benn

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by Russell Bennetts

Melissa Benn is a journalist and author, a campaigner for high-quality comprehensive education and a founder of the Local Schools Network. She is the author of Life Lessons: The Case for a National Education Service (Verso, 2018).

Berfrois

Where did the idea for a National Education Service (NES) in Britain originate?

Benn

There is a bit of uncertainty about this. I made the suggestion for an NES – a kind of parallel service to the National Health Service (NHS) – in my 2011 book School Wars: The Battle for Britain’s Education. Jeremy Corbyn started talking about it when he became a serious contender for the Labour leadership in 2015, an election which he won. (To be fair, he may well have spoken about it before, but I don’t remember.) The NES then became part of the mainstream political lexicon. Maybe Jeremy stole it from me!

Berfrois

How does the NES compare to the NHS?

Benn

To answer this, we need to go back in history and look at the differing evolution of our health and education services. Universal secondary education was established in 1944, when we were still at war, although we tend to think of it as an achievement of the post-war welfare state. While certainly a sign of progress, the implementation of the 1944 Act had a damaging fault line through it, commonly known as the 11-plus. Our education system divided our nation, broadly along the lines of social class, choosing winners and losers at an early age.

Compare this to the establishment of the NHS in 1948. For all its problems (post code inequalities and, more recently, a dangerous degree of privatisation), here was – and remains –  a public service institution explicitly designed to serve all the population in the same way, whatever their social class. It has endured down the decades as a symbol of national unity and for that reason is cherished by all.

We can’t say the same about state education which, while terrific in so many ways, still carries that legacy of division (even though selection was largely phased out in the 1960s). We continue to have a divided educational landscape. Most notably, a set of public schools that catapult the most affluent children to the upper echelons of society. Segregation continues with the 11-plus in certain areas, as well as through the growth of selective faith schools and so on.

So, for a major political party to adopt the idea of an NES is an important attempt to reset, through the language of politics, our education system back to something more inclusive.

Borrowing a similar-sounding title to the NHS is not a bad place to start. It seeks to heal that historic divide, to confirm education as a core entitlement. The NES will be a guarantee from society to every citizen, a promise to genuinely underwrite their intellectual and vocational development throughout their lives. It will be a service that fosters individual excellence.

Berfrois

What are the defining features of the NES?

Benn

The NES is not a concrete proposal for the creation of an overarching institution, or any kind of rallying call for the ‘nationalisation’ of state education. Indeed, one could argue that the Conservative–Liberal Democrat Coalition did a good job of that, through its excessive tightening of the grip of central government and central institutions. The NES has, instead, a fresh promise at its heart: the pledge of genuinely free education over the course of a lifetime.

This cradle-to-grave aspect is very important and is one of the defining features of the NES. The direction of education policy over the past thirty years has been to focus obsessively on the school years, and the relationship between school achievement and status and entrance to the selective universities. These have been seen as the key staging posts in the traditional conception of a ‘good education.’ An NES, in contrast, would invest in high quality education in the early years, pay far greater attention to further and technical education, and restore much needed continuing and adult education.

In terms of the school years, an NES has to surely be genuinely comprehensive. Future reform must confirm and advance the changes of the ‘60s and ‘70s, when non-selective education was first introduced. I can’t see how an NES could be anything else, but there’s a fair bit of political persuasion still needed to get Labour to lead on this.

It is probably necessary to say at this point that while the impetus for my book Life Lessons came from Labour’s adoption of the idea of an NES, and while I support many of their key education proposals, my book is very much a discussion of what I think an NES could look like, and does not represent official Labour Party policy. I am trying to act as a critical friend here.

Berfrois

Why is the NES needed now?

Benn

One of the most important things I learned from researching my book is just how widespread agreement now is on the problems our system faces. This is cross-party in many ways. It’s not just a left or liberal thing. Everyone recognises that, for example, technical education is in trouble, further education is ‘in tatters’, acadamisation has not been the ‘silver bullet’ promised by the Michael Gove years, teachers are struggling to such an extent that recruitment is in crisis, and students are stressed and unhappy at the narrowing of the curriculum and the piling on of too many exams. Many now see just how major a problem the public schools continue to be. They are a block to both genuine social mobility and educational equality. Something needs to change and an NES is a good place to start that discussion.

For those who don’t like the term, they could always re-phrase the NES as a New Educational Settlement. The point is, there is something in these reforms for everyone.

Berfrois

How did we get to our current system (over-tested pupils, fragmented school types, variation in quality across the country and within cities)?

Benn

That’s a complicated question! Let me boil it down to two interconnected developments. The first is social and economic. We have always had a divided and unequal society, and education has always reflected and confirmed that in some way. As inequality has grown, and state spending has fallen (particularly since austerity), schools in poorer areas have taken a double hit. These schools, so often judged to be of poorer quality, are in fact managing the difficult and often fragmented lives of children from families in poverty. And they are doing so with a shrinking school budget. Accountability measures essentially punish them for educating the vulnerable.

The second major development, or set of developments, began with the 1988 Educational Reform Act. This led to the break up of the system of local oversight of schools (established in the 1944 Act), and the introduction of ‘new’ school types, more ‘parental choice’ and greater central control of schools. This process has accelerated down the years, so that in the last decade we have seen the entrance of many private interests into the running of our schools combined with many authoritarian diktats from the centre.

These factors combined have brought us to our current confused and inefficient system.

Berfrois

Why is Britain seemingly addicted to selection in education?

Benn

Deep in our DNA is the idea of education being a kind of race, from early on, in which we establish winners and losers and therefore sort everyone into different social positions. Private schools are the best way possible for affluent parents to avoid the downward mobility of their offspring within our currently precarious economic system. Within the state system, grammars and certain selective faith schools tend to favour those with existing cultural and financial advantage, and also help the middle class feel secure within the state system. Historically, too, selection was a good way of picking out talented individuals from less favoured backgrounds and helping them to become the new elite of the next generation.

Meritocratic systems are addictive, in part because they work in their own limited way. The problem is, they are also deeply old-fashioned, and depend on the effective disposal of the majority at a relatively young age. That’s the unspoken part of the deal. And then we wonder why we do not thrive as an education system or, indeed, as a country!

I would argue that we need to decide, as a nation, whether we are genuinely committed to high quality universal education, like the Finns and the Canadians, or whether, secretly (or not so secretly), we want to go on picking winners and losers, and letting the rest go hang. So maybe it’s a conversation that requires deeper understanding and more private and public honesty, so we can get to the roots of the assumptions at play in the minds of so many, particularly those at the top of society.

Berfrois

What are you looking to create with an NES? (Workers, life-long scholars, citizens, happy children?)

Benn

A good education system should deliver many different kinds of individuals, as we all have different talents. But if I had to pick out a couple of qualities which I would like to see further developed in all our students, they would be curiosity and confidence.

One of the things I loathe about the English education system is the way that it dampens the interests and self-belief of so many children, at such an early age, and exaggerates the power and self-confidence of others. This is all for social rather than intellectual or other reasons. I believe that everyone in our system could do with wider life experience, but those who are educated separately, and come to believe that they are both special and superior, could do with a big dose of humility, while those from poorer areas could do with a big boost to their self-confidence.

Berfrois

The NHS is a cradle-to-grave service. Do you foresee this for the NES, too?

Benn

Absolutely. Under a properly funded NES, each citizen would be assured of a good start in a local nursery of some kind, where they can enjoy play-based learning under the care of highly qualified graduate practitioners. And beyond the school, further education or university years, they should be able to choose to pick up education of any kind in their adult life, too. Holly Rigby, a terrific young teacher and activist, often talks about how her grandmother got a humanities degree in her eighties. I would love to see more older people taking first or second degrees, or possibly developing an entirely new career.

Berfrois

How will the NES help revive adult learning in the UK?

Benn

I am very pleased to have recently been appointed to a Centenary Commission, examining the development of adult education over the 20th century (and its somewhat precipitous decline over the last twenty years) and making proposals for reform in the future. There are some amazing people on the Commission, which is chaired by the first female master ever of Balliol College, Dame Helen Ghosh. The 1919 Commission was chaired by the then Master of Balliol College, and included R H Tawney, the great socialist philosopher, among its number. This is a major undertaking, and we report on in November. Watch this space.

Berfrois

How can you win the Tories over to the idea of an NES? While they are reluctant to openly attack the NHS, many are openly disdainful of public education.

Benn

There are certainly some Tories who are firmly wedded to the idea of a segregated education system, one that includes a flourishing private school sector. For them, genuine public education will always be second best. But there are many Tories who understand, and welcome, the benefits of a common school system, including a comprehensive one (look at Hampshire, a Tory county with a good comprehensive school system). Similarly, one of the most marked features of the Michael Gove era was its commitment to non-selective excellence, with many Tories now implacably opposed to the 11-plus. If one can persuade the centre right of the manifest values and virtues of comprehensive education, it should not be too hard to persuade them of the importance of good early years provision, properly supported technical and further education, and life-long learning. This is all just common sense, really.

Possibly the bigger fight will be over how to raise money for cradle-to-grave provision and who should run it. Arguments over the degree, and means, of public investment and public oversight are hugely important. I think both debates can be easily won in the current climate, where there is a lot of disaffection around what is often called the neoliberal agenda. No one really falls for that stuff anymore!

Berfrois

How can we build consensus (with the public and the media) for an NES?

Benn

I have become fascinated with the way in which public opinion shifts, and the role that politics and campaigns play in that shift. Clearly, periods of emergency and/or war tend to majorly shift opinions. After all, that is how the welfare state was built. Britain saw what the state could do, and provide, in conflict: why could it not build for positive change in peacetime? That is why Clement Attlee beat Winston Churchill in the 1945 election.

This current period is a little different, but I sense that the upheaval of Brexit, or the threat of Brexit, could focus many peoples’ minds on what kind of a society we really want. People are ready for something more radical, as we have seen with the shift of the Labour Party to the left.

Also, as I have argued, there’s a feeling that the agenda of the last ten or more years has run into the ground. Things really aren’t working. We need to do things differently. When you get a publication like Country Life bemoaning the decline of arts and music provision in our schools, then a new consensus is clearly being built.

Berfrois

What more does Labour need to offer than currently put forward in their manifesto and charter?

Benn

It would be good to get a sense soon of what exactly Labour would do in its first term of office: some clear pledges, and a bit more detail. I think it would also be great if Labour could ‘tell a story’ around the NES a little bit more: tracing the history of our system, pointing out its failures and successes, and making the case for fundamental change. Gove did that from the right. We need someone to change the narrative from the left.

I would urge the party leadership to be courageous on the big, controversial issues of both private education, and selection within the state system. Why not argue for a common system for all children, and spell out how Labour might do it? As for the grammars, there is no justification for a test at the age of 10 or 11 that, in effect, discriminates against poorer children. Selection bolsters the few, not the many, it should have no part in a Labour NES. We know that well-funded, high quality comprehensives can support even the most academic of learners, and are much better for social cohesion (not a term I particularly like, it sounds like a type of glue, but you know what I mean).

Berfrois

How have your ideas progressed since we spoke in 2011 about School Wars: The Battle for Britain’s Education and in 2016 about The Truth About Our Schools: Exposing the Myths, Exploring the Evidence?

Benn

I suppose my core belief in a high quality, comprehensive public education system, staffed by autonomous, well-educated, well-paid teachers, who are given the time and freedom to really teach, and are working with a broad and engaging curriculum – all that hasn’t changed. But I am constantly testing my own beliefs and ideas, and delving into everything from educational history, to the workings of other countries, to the work of other writers and educationalists, seeing what I can learn from them.  In some ways, these investigations have only confirmed my view that the historic weakness of the English system is that it continues to let down so many disadvantaged young people. Once, long ago, that would have been through providing no education at all; now, it’s more complicated. Diane Reay’s interesting book Miseducation: Inequality, Education and the Working Classes spells out the ways that working class children are marginalised and discouraged within the current system.

Berfrois

How would an NES be beneficial to teachers? For instance, how could retention rates be improved?

Benn

Under my version of the NES – or New Educational Settlement – we would change teacher education quite dramatically, and make it more like Finland or Canada or even Singapore (which has some other unfortunate features that we would not want to borrow). In these countries, teachers are very carefully selected, given a long and rigorous education, and provided with generous continuous professional development. We could also learn from the Finnish system, which gives teachers time to collaborate with other colleagues on the delivery of the curriculum. This should all help improve retention rates and the lives of teachers.

As I argue in the book, what has happened to teachers in this country, particularly in terms of workload and general stress, as well as the introduction of thousands of unqualified teachers, is something between a pity and a scandal.

Berfrois

How did Finland successfully integrate their schooling system after World War II?

Benn

Finland really is such a fascinating and heartening case study in change. In the post war period, it had a highly segregated system, very similar to our own, made up of private, selective and less well regarded ‘local’ schools. Many leading figures, in politics and education, understood that such a profoundly unequal education system did not simply reproduce inequality through the generations, but weakened the fabric of the nation itself. Finland was acutely aware of the threat from Russia. There then followed a long period of debate and discussion throughout the nation on what should replace this old, creaking system, and in the end they decided to abolish their fee-paying schools and introduce a nationwide comprehensive system. Famously, these reforms led to the closing of the attainment gap between the richest and poorest students, and turned Finland into one of the global educational success stories of the modern era.

I like to think that we are in the middle of just such a debate, and that it could, and should, end up in some important reforms, that will bring us closer to a system genuinely fit for the 21st Century.

If you want to read about how the Finnish system works close up, then I heartily recommend Lucy Crehan’s Cleverlands and Alex Beard’s Natural Born Learners. These two new books by young writers, who both quit teaching in our own system because it was so exhausting and ineffective, explore how other countries do things. They are both fascinating reads.

Berfrois

Does a Corbyn government offer the chance for the UK to finally rid itself of fee paying schools? Or, at the very least, undo the charitable status of private schools?

Benn

You make a good distinction. I suspect that a Corbyn government would act on some elements of private school privilege, such as removing certain key subsidies, and Corbyn has already said that he plans to put VAT on school fees in order to pay for free school meals for primary school children. Having said that, Labour, in general, over the last forty years, has become much less radical than it once was on the private/public divide. David Kynaston and Francis Green dissect this muting of protest and failure to tackle the issue in their latest book, Engines of Privilege: Britain’s Private School Problem. They also make some proposals for change, which Labour might consider.

Berfrois

How would contextual university admissions operate? It’s a generalisation, but the upper class are able to send their children to fee-paying schools, while the middle class often move home in order to gain access to better state schools. They can afford private tutors for their children. These options are not available to the working class. So how can a university recognise the potential in students from poorer backgrounds who inevitably will tend to score lower grades?

Benn

The media and politicians are obsessed with admissions, and particularly admissions to Oxford and Cambridge, whereas the problems in the university sector go so much deeper than that. The move to a fee/loan system, the new controls on research and teaching, the bloated salaries of some senior managers – all of these mirror the effect of marketisation in the school system, which began somewhat earlier. These changes to higher education have altered the character of our universities in profound ways.

‘Contextual admissions’ could help chip away at the unfair advantage of private school that you identify. This would involve lowering an offer for a university place to those who had gone to much less privileged schools. I think it’s fair to say that someone who manages a B in Maths A Level from a hard-pressed state school in a deprived coastal area is probably just as bright, and determined, if not more so, than someone who gets an A* from a top private school. Such a change might also discourage the wealthy from educating their children separately and encourage them to give the state system a try. Given that probably the greatest academic (as opposed to social) advantage of certain public schools is increased access to Oxbridge, contextual admissions would help dissipate that certainty.

For another viewpoint, there are some, like Professor Tim Blackman of Middlesex University, who believe that universities should become generally less selective, rather than help those with less educational advantage to enter more selective institutions. His ideas on the ‘comprehensive university’ are interesting, and I urge people to check them out.

Berfrois

Why did we see such a visceral reaction to the idea of free tuition fees?

Benn

There are many in the mainstream media and political class who are profoundly hostile to anything coming from a left-leaning Labour Party and nothing is going to change that. Others are convinced that the price tag of the abolition of fees is too high, given our deficit economy. And indeed, in Life Lessons, I explore the idea of a graduate or all-age graduate tax in place of the loan system, as it looks like Labour may have underestimated the cost of abolishing loans, particularly with so many young people now going to university.

Having said that, I would argue that Labour’s 2017 manifesto proposal to abolish tuition fees was a major political coup de theatre. Not only did it mean that Labour did much better in the election than anyone predicted (there were other issues in play, but this was an important one), but it changed the political weather overnight. The government appointed a commission to look at tuition fees and how to lower them (this has not has not yet reported back) and Andrew Adonis, key architect of the New Labour education policy, suddenly became a fierce critic of fees and excessive Vice Chancellor salaries. A once-established common sense was dismantled, and I put that down to Labour boldness over the fee issue.