"Strictly Come Learning"— Melissa Benn’s School Wars featured in the New Statesman and Counterfire


Neil Faulkner reviewed Melissa Benn's School Wars for Counterfire and argued that the conservative attack on the state education system it reveals is a key aspect of the wider assault on the welfare state. He charted that attack as beginning in the 1970s, its aims being spectacularly exposed in a senior Depart of Education and Science official's leaked memo:

There has to be selection because we are beginning to create aspirations which society cannot match. In some ways, this points to the success of education, in contrast to the public mythology which has been created.

When young people drop off the education production line and cannot find work at all, or work which meets their abilities and expectations, then we are creating frustration, with perhaps disturbing consequences. We have to select: to ration the educational opportunities, so that society can cope with the output of education ...

We are in a period of considerable social change. There may be social unrest, but we can cope with the Toxteths [riots]. But if we have a highly educated and idle population, we may possibly anticipate more serious social conflict. People must be educated once more to know their place (Quoted in G. Walford, 1990, Privatisation and Privilege in Education, p.1.).

Faulkner shared Benn's suspicion of the vitriol leveled at state schools by politicians and "hack journalists who do not use them", praising that "Benn is excellent at documenting the relentless and baseless attacks on a 'failing' school system". He agreed with Benn that this negative image of the education system was merely painted in order to pave the way for reform towards a more selective system. This reform had four main aims: selection so that working classes "once more know their place"; greater discipline to provide "socialization for labour"; privatization of the education market worth an estimated £100 billion; the destruction of the unions. Describing Benn's analysis as excellent, Faulkner compared the importance of School Wars for understanding the education system to the importance of The Plot Against the NHS by Colin Leys and Stewart Player for understanding healthcare reforms. He went so far as to say:

 To read both books is to grasp our rulers' determination to destroy the welfare state, to understand their methods, and to learn how far they have already advanced towards their goal.

However, Faulkner expressed two reservations about the closing section of the book. Firstly, he felt that "concessions are made to the neoliberal right that are indefensible on the basis of the argument of the rest of the book". In particular, he  disagreed with Benn that testing, input from the private sector and parental preference at secondary transfer have even a minor place in the state education system. Secondly, Faulkner was disappointed that while Benn passionately describes an ideal system, she does not offer a method as to how to realize it.

In a piece on the future of the state education system for the New Statesman, Samira Shackle speculated with Benn on the end goal of the education reforms underway. They delivered a chilling prediction of a free-market corporate education system:

 Given the direction of travel, the future of schools under the Tory-led government is a series of corporate chains of academies. Local authorities are not perfect, but it is important to have accountable bodies on things like admissions, funding, special needs and exclusions, and to help schools collaborate, rather than just compete," argues Benn. "[Chains of academies] are unaccountable to anyone and they will probably make profit further down the line.

The prospect of this future is one of the motivating factors for the Coalition of Resistance meeting. At this time of mass strikes and protests against the Government's austerity agenda and radical reforms to the NHS, tuition fees and the education system, ULU is hosting a debate on what should be done.  Melissa and Tony Benn will be speaking, along with Des Freedman. The meeting will take place on the 24th October at UCL.

To read the review in full please visit Counterfire and visit the New Statesman to read the article.

To find out more about the Coalition of Resistance Meeting with Tony and Melissa Benn visit ULU campaigner.