Melissa Benn: Free Schools, Exams And The Battle For Britain's Education
The government's answer to helping people in deprived areas gain better access to good education is rolling out this month, with 24 "free schools" opening across the country.
The schools, which are state-funded and set up by teachers, charities and parents, will be able to give priority to the most disadvantaged children and will largely be based in deprived areas with poor academic results.
But education campaigner Melissa Benn doesn't believe the latest reform to the education system will close the gap. In an interview with the Huffington Post UK she explains why she thinks the government has let children down and how league tables and obsessive attention to exams are ruining real education.
The daughter of Labour veteran Tony Benn is not someone who preaches from a pulpit; she spent 18 months touring the country's schools and her own daughters both attend, as she puts it, the local “well, I don’t even know if we can call it comprehensive anymore – the local community school”.
Benn carved her own reputation as a prominent voice in education while writing for the Guardian, before taking a more hands-on approach and actively campaigning on behalf of the muted voices of teachers and schoolchildren alike.
A staunch defender of the comprehensive, the system which replaced the old grammar/secondary modern divide of the 1960s, Benn is adamant the current system can be improved without overhaul.
“Clearly there are problems, but instead of saying 'let's improve them' Michael Gove started saying 'the system’s not good enough'.
"He said something like 'this is a dreadful inheritance that our children have to face'.
"So they brought in free schools when really they need to be working on what we already have. They [the government] are very keen to say this is to provide education for the poor children the state system is letting down. The jury’s out on that. There’s something very muddy in the whole thing. Free schools are really a grammar school option in the comprehensive system.”
Benn pauses, then adds: “My feeling is it’s as much about the nervous middle class finding yet another way of avoiding local schools. We don’t know if free schools will close the gap. I very much doubt they will. It’s simply a shift of resources. And who’s being harmed? The children. I mean - what are we doing?”
While the rest of the world lays the blame for today’s “lost youth” at the schools’ doorsteps, Benn says the government has let teachers, children and parents down, by losing sight of the role of schools and who should be running them.
“Too often politicians run down schools who are dealing with challenges rather than say ‘how do we deal with this?’.
“To put it simply, every neighbourhood or area should have a world-class local school. That is what a modern society should provide for its citizens. The boundaries between the school as a business model or a public service have become blurred. It is the job of government to set the tone and direct education, and for local authorities to provide it, not the private sector. There are so many young people who need jobs and apprenticeships and I think the private sector should be getting involved in that, rather than running our schools.”
But, she continues, it is not just the government to blame for painting a bleak landscape of Britain’s education. “The media have often played a negative role. A friend said to me the other day ‘comprehensive has almost become a dirty word’. Partly thanks to the media it has become associated with failure, chavs, yobs, the poor...
“There’s a difference between a school which educates children with problems and a problem school. There’s this beam of attention on failing schools. Education is seen as a burdensome badge to mobility.”
So there’s no hope?
“Well I think in the end society will say this system is such a mess it just needs sorting out. Sometimes you need to have a huge upheaval and start again. I really wish as a nation we had more courage and imagination to solve what should be a fairly straightforward issue.”
I ask her if schools are about more than just education.
“It’s more about education being more than just exams. It’s about learning about life. You can’t measure schools like St Paul’s in London and Lilian Baylis in Kennington by the same league table. How can you compare those two schools? The latter is taking children the education system is trying to get rid of and giving them an education and their GCSE results are pretty stellar given their intake. I find league tables pernicious, deceitful and unhelpful. It’s crazy to set schools up like rival shops.
But you can’t measure children by the same ruler either, can you?
“I think you need to keep checking how children are doing, but there must be a more creative way of doing it than this uniform way. The idea of defining children by ability when they’re so young is terribly unimaginative. By the time an 11-year-old passes school they have already been put into races, into little boxes. In comprehensives there is not such a concern about definition. Exams kill your love of learning. I think it is really unhealthy for young children to be so obsessed by exams at such an early age.
“It’s almost like young people are becoming indentured to the state and the race to qualifications, like slaves to a household. They have to get top results, top degrees and they come out with huge debts into a landscape of unemployment. They are going to be shackled to the government, to employers, and that’s really worrying.
“Even parents get caught up in this whole exam thing. The whole psychology of parent world and education I mean it’s…” and here her voice drops to a whisper, even though we’re in the room alone, “it’s crazy”.
But she adds, “that’s a whole other story”.
Melissa Benn is author of the forthcoming School Wars: The Battle For Britain's Education and will be debating across the country in the next few months. Follow her on twitter @Melissa_Benn