Side by Side: On Britain’s School Wars

Side by Side: On Britain’s School Wars

Side by Side: On Britain’s School Wars

Melissa Benn attacks the deepening rift of privilege and privatization in Britain’s secondary schools.


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.

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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The idea that the standard types of state school have “failed” and that successful innovation in education requires new institutional models, with new “freedoms” from state control, has gained ground in several countries in the past couple of decades. In Britain the form that has been much vaunted is one in which state schools are allowed under certain conditions to convert to “academy” status, which gives them more freedom from local government control, exemption from various national agreements about pay and conditions, and a significant injection of funds. Academy schools began as a Labour government idea to attract philanthropic and commercial sponsors to revivify “failing” schools in inner-city and other deprived areas, but David Cameron’s Tory-led coalition government has been enthusiastically extending the scheme to cover “outstanding” schools as well. In addition, some academy schools, sponsored by large commercial companies, focus almost exclusively on vocational qualifications, boasting that their post-school employment record is better than that of conventional state schools (many of which still seek to give children an education, not mere job training). In some cases, these schools seem to do little more, notes Benn, than to guarantee to their commercial sponsors “a captive future workforce.” These and other developments reflect, she says, the “extraordinary sense of presumption concerning the right of private enterprise to interfere at every level in our education system.”

It is becoming clear that academies involve a substantial use of public money to support private educational agendas. One of the most crucial functions of local authorities in education, as Benn justly remarks, is “to balance the interests of the whole population against powerful interest groups.” The academies program does the opposite, empowering particular interest groups. Business and religious organizations are no substitute for the whole community, working through its democratically elected form of government, national or local. Moreover, the commitment of some of the sponsoring bodies is proving to be fickle or short-term: “The philanthropic edu-entrepreneur can always walk away; the state, quite rightly, cannot.” Worse still, these schools are allowed to select pupils on the grounds of “aptitude” for their curricular focus or of “congruence” of religious values, which means in practice that energetic and knowledgeable parents can find yet more ways to get their children in to what are perceived to be the “best” schools, to the detriment of the education of the children of the less knowledgeable majority. “Despite being officially phased out over forty-five years ago,” comments Benn with icy accuracy, “selection still defines and moulds our education system. Every piece of legislation over the past twenty-five years has resulted in more, rather than less, selection, covert or overt.”

As she notes, policy-makers in Britain point to the alleged success of the “free schools” in Sweden and the charter school movement in the United States as justification for liberating certain schools from local control. The latter now has 5,000 schools educating more than a million and a half children, and large claims are made about the startling improvements these schools have made in the educational attainment of neighborhoods of “deprived” children. But in reality the evidence that these schools have been a success is decidedly mixed. The most thorough analysis of the Swedish free schools concludes that they have brought some benefit to the children of the already most advantaged families but have lowered standards in the national system overall. A former government minister is quoted as saying, “We are now seeing segregation in our schools, along lines of social class,” and Sweden’s international ranking has been falling as a consequence.

In the United States, charter schools are, in effect, “privately run state schools, whose funds are often significantly bolstered by philanthropic and private sources,” Benn writes. But here again the record is not wholly positive. Some of these schools do well, some less well, but the former depend heavily on selective recruiting of the most highly motivated children, strict parental support and a high rate of exclusion of troublesome pupils. And, of course, these schools receive significantly larger funds than their public counterparts: charter schools in the Knowledge Is Power Program (launched by Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin in 1994) receive as much as $6,600 more a year per pupil than public high schools, while one celebrated charter school in Washington, DC, receives three times as much money as its public counterparts. Benn summarizes these arguments with her usual incisiveness:

The problem is not that these semi-independent schools spend generous sums on the education of poor children, but that they claim superiority, in approach and method, to a state system that is educating far more challenging pupils on far less money, and then they suggest—as politicians and right-wing policy-makers are increasingly arguing in the UK—that revenue is irrelevant to school performance and results.

In addition to various forms of nonprofit organizations that are increasingly taking over responsibility for schools from the state, there is the prospect of for-profit providers being allowed to run selected state schools. And such companies make sure that they make a profit out of their business: Cognita, one of the leading for-profit providers in Britain, made £3 million in 2010 alone from a school it had taken over in London, though its methods hardly provide a sustainable model for the system as a whole. Meanwhile, difficult pupils who are excluded by these various privately run schools in order to boost their exam scores and their disciplinary record have to be picked up by much less well-funded state schools.

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Alongside these changes to the state system—changes commonly referred to as forms of “privatization”—elite “public schools” in Britain have continued to flourish. As Benn notes, they have shrewdly moved with the times and rebranded themselves as “independent schools,” disowning their ages-old association with upper-crust privilege and marketing a narrative that “stresses high academic standards, good discipline, motivated staff, operational efficiency, high levels of extra-curricular activities, and so on.” Prime Minister Cameron (Eton) and his Lib Dem coalition partner Nick Clegg (Westminster) typify the new elites produced by these schools: confident but not overtly superior, advantaged but not remote, as at home with popular culture as with high culture; in a word, modern. In 2011 there are approximately 2,600 private schools educating 628,000 children (about 7–8 percent of the school-age population), but the alumni of the top layer of these schools are still staggeringly overrepresented in all the upper reaches of British life—the political, legal and financial sectors above all. Increasingly, these schools educate the direct beneficiaries of the huge transfer of wealth from the less advantaged to the financial and business elite that has taken place in the past three decades, and they are prospering correspondingly. “Private-school fees have risen almost three times faster than average income over the past two decades,” Benn writes.

The charitable status (and hence favorable tax position) of private schools in Britain is indefensible, and the relative media and political silence about it is a minor scandal. One notable exception to this silence is Simon Jenkins, former editor of the Times of London and no one’s idea of a left-wing ideologue, whose scathing observation is quoted by Benn: “An exclusive education is not a public benefit—if anything, the opposite. It is far from the dictionary’s ‘voluntary granting of selfless help to those in need.’ Many schools exist to help rich parents compete for university places with those in need.” In tax terms, their charitable status exacts “a compulsory donation to these schools from the taxpayer.” Private schools, like private medicine, function in the same way as do the large, electronically surveyed entrance gates on the driveways to “exclusive” homes—as a way of insulating the social experience of global capitalism’s financial elite from contact with their less privileged fellow citizens.

Comprehensive education is an unfinished project, one that has never been fully attempted in Britain. Benn tellingly invites us to imagine the level of public support that might obtain if a National Education Service had been created to parallel the National Health Service. Now even the limited progress that was achieved in the 1960s and ’70s is being put into reverse. We need a comprehensive, democratically accountable public system, but within that we should give teachers as much autonomy as possible. The current policies do the opposite: under the cover of a rhetoric of “diversity” and “choice,” they break up the public system into competing, differentially advantaged categories of schools that reproduce rather than correct for socioeconomic advantage, while minutely controlling the curriculum and how it is assessed. Teachers are scorned by government as an obstructive interest group rather than regarded as the qualified professionals best placed to make day-to-day educational decisions, though it must be said that the teachers’ trade unions and other representatives have provided successive governments with some justification for these attitudes. Meanwhile, the real interest groups—wealthy parents committed to social segregation, religious zealots perpetuating mistrust, commercial companies making profits out of public subsidy—are given more freedom and power, and in some cases large amounts of public funding, to pursue their divisive ends.

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Recent schools policy in Britain, like so much of current politics in Britain and the United States (and elsewhere), is founded on a toxic mix of individualism and fear. The fear is evident in the various metaphors of contamination that turn up in responses to any proposal that suggests the more advantaged may have to share life experiences with the less advantaged. Even parents who profess to believe in greater equality among adults want their children’s schooling to be protected against behavior associated with the lower orders. But the deforming perspective of individualism is more poisonous still—a refusal to place one’s experience and concerns in a larger social context, an indifference to the overall pattern, an obtuseness about the social determinants of behavior, a denial of the legitimate claims of others. One of the main lessons to be drawn from School Wars is that the overwhelming priority, when thinking about schools, should be to focus on the larger picture of society as a whole. All attempts to justify various forms of selective schooling focus on the beneficiary group alone.

This does not mean that those who believe in free, public, socially inclusive education should be reproached for not consistently choosing such schooling for their children, regardless of the circumstances. Benn may seem to understate the agonizing dilemmas education-conscious middle-class parents face when their local state school option is manifestly inadequate. Campaigning to improve such schools is admirable, but it is understandable why, in the short term, some parents feel unable to deny their children the more stimulating education available at a selective or private school. Indeed, the most common form of reproach leveled at such behavior may express another aspect of the fallacy of individualism. There is an instructive parallel here between thinking about tax and about education. As things stand, I am not prepared unilaterally to send to the revenue office a substantial check each year representing the additional tax I think people in my income bracket should be charged, but I would enthusiastically vote for a candidate who pledges to raise the tax rate for everyone at that income level. Similarly, if schools are divided by various forms of social and academic selectivity, as they are at present, one might well not be prepared to send a child to the “worst” school in order to widen his social experience and to contribute, minimally, to social solidarity; but one might enthusiastically vote for a candidate who pledges to abolish selective schooling across the country. It cannot be said often enough that the state is not some alien behemoth from whose “impositions” we should seek to escape. The state is us, acting collectively to do the things that are in the collective interest but that we are unable to bring about by acting individually.

Benn quotes a commentator who observed that, for all the vehemence of disagreements on the matter, “everyone wants the same thing: a good, free, local school for all.” But it may be, alas, that not everyone wants that; what many people want is for their children to have more educational advantages than others, and they are prepared to do anything legal to get that. One of the most striking features of middle-class norms of ethical propriety is that a degree of self-interest that would be condemned as unacceptably selfish if attached to one’s own wants becomes irreproachably “normal,” even altruistic, when attached to the education of one’s children.

Benn is too rigorous a writer to rely on those vox pop vignettes that have become a substitute for evidence and argument in so much contemporary journalism. But at one point she reports the reaction of a mother who, having been closely involved with her local state school, is driven to distraction by the comments on state education of her friends who choose to send their children to private schools: “I mean, the way they talk about these schools and these children. We start having arguments and I just can’t bear what they say, the ignorance. I have to get up and leave the table. But that’s exactly why social cohesion is so important. To break down that ignorance.” School Wars makes an impressive contribution to breaking down that ignorance. You really ought to read it before you attend your next dinner party.

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