"Back to Victorian times?" An interview with Melissa Benn


In an interview with the Socialist Worker, Melissa Benn warns about the devastating impact of the coalition policies on the British schooling system. The author of School Wars: The Battle for Britain's Education emphasises how the introduction of academies de facto implies a privatization of education:

I think that what's really behind academies is getting rid of local democracy and shifting education towards the private sector. It will be state-funded-but not a state system.

In Benn's view, the new policies bring about more class segregation between richer and poorer pupils. This has been a long-term issue in British education. Conservative pundits often explain the separation of richer and poorer pupils with the argument that children at elite schools were naturally more intelligent in other words, intelligence would determine class.

Instead, Benn argues, the problem is that class determines educational achievements. Working-class children are excluded a priori from private and grammar schools, and their local comprehensive schools are frequently underfinanced:

There's an underlying view of some in the elite that some children aren't worth educating ... or a fear that it would be dangerous to educate them.

The right says that poor children fail because of poor teaching and a 'mediocre' comprehensive ethos.

But poverty has a huge impact. Private and grammar schools select the more well-off students. They are much better resourced than comprehensives. Yet the Tories and the right wing press don't take this into account when judging schools.

In Benn's view, the diffusion of academies will only worsen this class divide. The idea itself of private business sponsoring schools would be harmful to local schools in deprived areas. The Tory policies might bring Britain's education "back to Victorian times," Benn says. The battle for a better and more equal education system, however, is not over yet:

Elites don't always get their own way,  she says. If they could we'd probably still have a very clear hierarchy of schools with grammars and secondary moderns everywhere.

I'm beginning to feel more cheerful because I can see a way through all this - but mainstream politicians are not going to lead us through it. If those of us who think we're going the wrong way speak up, we can shift things.

In fact, as Francis Beckett points out in a review of School Wars for the New Statesman, "Benn still hopes that the ideal of a national education system, democratically accountable locally and giving all children an equal chance in life, can be rescued." In his view, the book is a major contribution to this cause:

School Wars is short, well written and passionate, and is meant to be read not just by those who are experts in education, but also by parents struggling for the first time with a system that must seem impenetrable and unfair, who must wonder if things have to be this way.

Visit the Socialist Worker to read the interview in full.

Visit the New Statesman to read the review in full.

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