Sunday, March 05, 2017

Book review - School Wars: The Battle for Britain's Education

School Wars: The Battle for Britain's Education

by Melissa Benn

Biteback Publishing

review by Tim Barton

published in Hastings Independent, issue #71, 03.03.17

Sick of privatisation for profit? Sick of government cash incentives for private businesses whilst starving state run ones of cash? Sick of them then claiming the 'failing' ones are 'failing' because state run organisations 'don't work'? Sick of government cash bail-outs when these privatised ventures fail? Sick of the fact that many of them, granted support, are still in profit whilst 'failing'? And in the case of ARK, run by hedge-fund managers and bankers? Sick of new build schools taking public loans on high interest, hamstringing local finance for generations?

Melissa Benn traces the messy history of state education, private schools (all too often allied with religious organisations, and thus tax exempt), and the new 'academies' in her book 'School Wars'. She shows how the 'choice and diversity' revolution simply amplifies the social divide; how selection continues to exacerbate the divide in academies via vocational specialism; how funding for profit has seen powerful lobbies arise to promote privatisation of our schools; how little cash is invested by charitable trusts, but public funds are disproportionately redirected to them from the state sector; how nepotistic choices are made by government to ensure 'independent commissions' have their conclusions decided in advance; how outsourcing of peripheral functions is a goldmine for corner cutters; how the anti-state school ideology of Thatcher was expanded under Blair, then the coalition, and continues, gloves off, today.

'Plainly, the aim was to create a majority of privately managed institutions, including many primaries, leaving a rump of struggling schools within the ambit of local authorities, themselves undermined by savage budget cuts,' says Benn, leading even more surely to poorer results for poorer children. Indeed, often councillors have been presented with a 'no academy, no school' ultimatum.

The National Union of Teachers opposes both academies and 'free schools', criticising them for using unqualified teachers and for being out of Local Education Authority control. NUT leader, Christine Bloomer, has said that 'not since the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 has legislation other than that intended to counter terrorism, or deal with financial crisis, been rushed through all Parliamentary stages in quite this fashion'. The unseemly greedy rush for another un-mined business opportunity often sees advocates cite the 'Swedish model' of academies. Both the NUT and Benn criticises this comparison. The class divides seen in Britain are quite different: a better model in that of the USA, where success is far more equivocal.

One of the other issues with academies is just who will sponsor them. Religious organisations are ne of the main contenders. Almost all are 'chain store' businesses, run for profit ('the education market is worth over £10 billion') and obsessed with quantification of results, achieved all too often at the expense of quality and through the use of 'vocational' 'equivalents' ('efficiency is the new accountability'). Anyone who has experienced both learning through academic study (eg, GCSE's and A-levels) and through vocational study (eg, NVQ's) will know that, frequently, good 'results' may be achievable via the latter but not good 'education'. Too much labelling, too much testing – bad enough at middle school, but, appallingly, being pushed hard at primary too.

Meanwhile, a savage philistinism defines government assaults on core curriculum, especially with it's reprehensible attack on the humanities, leaving only fusty 19th century literature on the table. It was said of Gove (also arguably also applies to academies and free schools, both literally and conceptually), 'Behind a pretentious facade, he would be shoddy in design and execution'.

Benn makes a very strong case for continuing the comprehensive education experiment, and for the deliberate ideological sabotage and misrepresentation of it by politicians and the media. She cites the profound, if slow, impact of free comprehensive education for all on post-War society. Distributed equally to all, and creating common ground and understanding between communities, classes, religions, comprehensive ideal is potentially greatly rewarding for our society as a whole. Benn sees any failure of the poor to attain the promised social mobility that should derive from it as being a product of the continued lionisation of selective schools, that maintain the Class Ceiling in our divided nation.

Tory government, especially, showed 'no confidence in an education that did not prejudge an individual's worth or facilitate an escalation of enclaves for the favoured few'. Cyril Norwood is quoted on public schools, 'It is hard to resist the argument that a state which draws its leaders in overwhelming proportion from a class so limited as this is not a democracy but a plutocracy' and suggests reform is impossible with a two-tier system. The new 'free market' in schools, in fact, creates even more strata.

The case for a continuation of such issues under academies is well made.

One of ARK's hedge-fund founders says that 'as a committed Church of England Christian, I believe we are all made in God's image'. Do we really want a profiteering God squad to control curriculum at a state maintained non-church school like Castledown? Do we really want wealthy lobbyists with an inside track on government, with corporate sponsors registered, unregulated, in the Caymen Islands (see The Great City Academy Fraud, by Francis Beckett), profiteering from our children? Tales from other local ARK academies are of high staff turnover, rigid costcutting, and excessive target-driven pressure on teachers and pupils alike'. Stephen Ball (The Education Debate) is quite adamant 'of course, we will see these schools close when they start to make a loss', after 'milking profits [...] to the detriment of educational quality'.

Is 'the creeping privatisation of primary education' acceptable at all? It is impossible not to conclude that these schemes, intended in part as a progressive initiative, are turning into the means to destroy good egalitarian education.


Hands Off Castledown

If you are against the proposal to change Castledown into an ARK academy, if you feel that the consultation has been handled appallingly, if you have questions that you want answered about this then PLEASE EMAIL Stuart Gallimore, the governors, and Dominic Herrington (Regional Schools Commissioner) to complain and include the following addresses in every email so that everyone knows you oppose this:
Stuart Gallimore:
Dominic Herrington (RSC):
Governing Body:
Kerri Burns: head@castledown.e-sussex.sch
Amber Rudd (MP):
Bryony Mackenzie (SE Today):
Richard Gladstone (Hastings Observer):


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