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Side by Side: On Britain's School Wars | The Nation

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Side by Side: On Britain's School Wars

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Nothing is so likely to cause a dinner party to turn violent. In Britain, the question of the type of school parents choose for their children ranks with international terrorism and global warming as a topic that can inflame political passions and turn friend against friend. Or at least it does among the kinds of parents who think they have a choice about which schools their children might attend, kinds that correlate closely with those who give or attend dinner parties in the first place. For these disputes are overwhelmingly about social class, and they rest on the fundamental truth that in a class-divided society, education largely reflects, rather than corrects, patterns of socio-economic advantage and disadvantage.

School Wars
The Battle for Britain’s Education.
By Melissa Benn.
Buy this book.

About the Author

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The form taken by these disputes may be determined by Britain’s peculiar social and educational history, but the underlying principles are of far wider import and interest. What do we want schools to do for children? Do we think people develop and flourish best when educated with a cross section of their community, or do we think they are better served by being educated with those who are like them in terms of gender, ability, belief or social background? Do we want a common level of education to be available to all in a given society, regardless of region, religion or parental income, or do we think parents ought to be able to choose a school type from a diverse menu? Who do we think should decide what is taught in schools—teachers, parents, governments (local or national), philanthropists, commercial sponsors?

Melissa Benn has wrestled with these questions over many years, and has written or edited several books about them as well as campaigning locally and nationally in defense of public education. With School Wars she has written an exceptionally well-informed, cogent and spirited account of the debates over secondary education in Britain, while supporting her arguments with the findings of research about schools in the United States, Canada, Finland, Sweden and elsewhere. And the findings are unequivocal: by all important measures, she writes, “the best school systems are the most equitable—in other words students do well regardless of their socio-economic background. Conversely, schools that select students based on ability at an early age show the greatest difference in performance according to a child’s socio-economic background.” Over and over again, the data point to the conclusion that “education was not, nor could it be, the main engine of social change.” She can even cite for support the current Conservative minister for higher education, David Willetts, who caused something of a fuss in the right-wing press by announcing, when in opposition in 2007, that selective schools are not in practice a means of encouraging social mobility: “There is,” he said, “overwhelming evidence that such academic selection entrenches advantage. It does not spread it.” Benn’s commitment to the comprehensive ideal is clearly announced: “To enable the education of all children, side by side, seems to me a far richer definition of success, for both our education system and our society as a whole, than to take only the apparent winners, most of them from relatively affluent backgrounds, and educate them in separate, privileged enclaves, while condoning second-class facilities and resources for the unlucky majority.” But in practice, she laments, “Class stratification remains the default position, even in the twenty-first century.”

In the twentieth century, education, like almost everything else in Britain, was sharply divided along class lines. Before 1939 nearly 90 percent of the population attended state or denominational elementary schools and left at age 14. The upper and upper-middle classes educated their sons (and increasingly their daughters) at “public schools” (i.e., private schools), and a portion of the more academically able children of the middle class, plus a tiny number of scholarship-winning working-class boys, went to state-funded “grammar schools.” The first major change to this arrangement came with the Education Act of 1944, which instituted free secondary education for all children (the school-leaving age was raised to 16 over succeeding decades). But the 1944 act expressed a frankly meritocratic vision, sorting children into three ability groups by a national examination at age 11 (“the 11-plus”). Those identified as having the greatest intellectual potential got places at an expanded network of grammar schools; those with evident mechanical aptitude went to technical schools (though this part of the scheme never flourished); and the remaining 75 percent went to “secondary modern schools,” with the assumption in most cases that they would acquire few qualifications, leave at the earliest opportunity and be extremely unlikely to go to university. Neither the act nor the reforming Labour government of 1945–51 (which established the National Health Service and nationalized several major industries) addressed the existence of the public schools, which thus continued on their privileged way, relieving the wealthy elite of the obligation to have any firsthand experience of state education.

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The grammar schools of the postwar decades are remembered fondly by those who attended them (and by many who would like to see a return to such a frankly selective system), because they provided an intellectually stretching education mixed with a rich array of sporting, cultural and other extracurricular activities. They were a kind of success. “But how could it possibly be otherwise?” Benn asks. “Grammar-schools had, in general, three times more money spent on them; they had the best teachers, the best facilities, offered public examinations and a secure route into higher education.” What’s more, they relied on a high degree of social selection. Benn points out that in a working-class district of Nottingham, 1.5 percent of the school-age population attended grammar schools; in a middle-class suburb of the same city, 60 percent of children did. But the system as a whole was a disaster for the great majority who did not pass the 11-plus and who often felt branded as failures for the rest of their lives. It was also, as Benn shrewdly points out, deeply unpopular with those middle-class parents whose children did not get their “rightful” place at a selective school. Their discontent generated more business for the public schools, whose enrollments increased and have remained buoyant to this day. At the same time, there was pressure from the vocal classes to abolish this “tripartite system.” The first steps toward its replacement by “comprehensive schools” (all-ability schools drawn from a neighborhood catchment area rather than by academic selection) came in 1965, with the selective system being fully phased out in most, but not all, parts of the country by 1975.

In Britain the comprehensive ideal was not just supported by a lot of sound educational theory; it also acquired the overtones of a crusade. It was seen as a practical affirmation of social solidarity, an attempt to repudiate the disfiguring effects of the class-divided schools of the past and to replace them with a social and educational experience that encouraged inclusiveness and respect for those of different aptitudes or from different backgrounds. (It can be hard for those who have grown up in countries such as the United States and much of continental Europe, where an inclusive neighborhood public school system has long been taken for granted, to appreciate the huge symbolic significance that came to be attached to the ideal of comprehensive education in Britain in the 1960s and ’70s.) But partly because comprehensives were a vehicle for progressive ideals, they also became targets for constant hostile comment, especially from a largely right-wing press. “Virtually, all problems in state schools are laid at the door of poor teachers, middle-class liberals and an ineffectual and yet over-controlling state.” This position, Benn notes, “chimes with the right’s broader refusal to recognise any significant correlation between family background, poverty in general, rising economic inequality and school outcomes.” Meanwhile, highly selective grammar schools are far from extinct. In thirty-six of the 152 local authorities in England (Wales and Scotland have more genuinely democratic traditions in these matters), a selective system still operates; and across the country there are still 164 grammar schools, which have more and more become the preserve of the pushy middle-class. By siphoning off better teachers and greater resources as well as the more committed pupils from the more supportive families, these institutions have a damaging effect on their nonselective neighboring schools. It has been estimated that at least 500 schools have been affected by the continued existence of the grammar schools.

Since the 1980s secondary education in England, like university education and a range of other public services, has been subject to two contradictory pressures. On the one hand, there has been a huge increase in central government control of the curriculum, forms of assessment and methods of teaching. The Education Reform Act of 1988 specified a “national curriculum” and an exacting regime of age-level testing; in the mid-’90s the government began to publish league tables of schools’ performances in these national forms of assessment. The overall effect of these changes was to encourage a further loss of trust in and respect for teachers, while activity in schools came to be overwhelmingly geared toward obtaining a good ranking in the league tables of results. “Teaching to the test” replaced more imaginative forms of good teaching. In addition, as Benn notes, “League tables also spelled the death of extra-curricular activity in state schools.” Sport and music were the greatest casualties: in the decade after 1995 “the number of [school] playing fields in England fell from 78,000 to 44,000.”

On the other hand, the rhetoric of successive governments, both Tory and Labour, increasingly insisted on the values of “choice” and “diversity.” Parents were to be seen as “consumers” who were “entitled” to pick their preferred form of schooling from a menu of “products.” Local government was represented as too bureaucratic and tolerant of mediocre or inadequate performance; the preferred focus was on the “initiative” of philanthropists or groups of like-minded parents and on the need for “leadership” in schools (on the dynamic chief executive model rather than the consensual head teacher model). “Faith schools” (in the United States, religion-based schools) were lauded as a way of increasing commitment from pupils and participation from parents. The involvement of commercial companies was encouraged as a means of injecting more money into education and on account of the presumed benefits of bringing the cost-effective, bottom-line realism of the business world to bear. The result of these various changes is that, as Benn notes, English schooling now displays a “strange marriage of privatisation and hyper-accountability.”

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