School Wars is an important and readable book which places current government education policies in some historical context. Its main theme is the ruling class’s determination to sustain its own elite schools, while simultaneously attacking schools for the majority.
Melissa Benn describes the media’s unscrupulous assault on comprehensive schools. A supply teacher, who actually hadn’t taught for 30 years, was sent by Channel Five to spy on Holland Park, the author’s former school.
According to Benn, “with a camera smuggled into her handbag she filmed her unsuccessful attempts to control a number of classes”. But when it came to Channel Five, the advertisement said, “As their classes spiral out of control, teachers face at best indifference and rudeness, at worst taunts and threats.”
The first chapter exposes the chaos created by Tory education minister Michael Gove through academies and free schools, budget cuts and his very limited understanding of the curriculum.
Melissa Benn explains how, thanks to a law rushed through parliament, schools can be converted into academies and handed over to big business without even pretending to consult parents.
Benn also discusses the moral panic fostered by the media and government around the issue of low achievement. Yet repeatedly the evidence that shows three times as many pupils now get five “good GCSEs” as before the days of comprehensives is ignored.
Chapter three focuses on earlier Tory governments and Tony Blair’s elitist distaste for what he called “bog standard” comprehensive schools. Despite this attack, at times the book can be quite soft and superficial in its account of New Labour’s record.
The book includes a fascinating account of the author’s visit to the £30,000 a year Wellington School. The students there enjoy not only small classes but 16 rugby pitches, 22 tennis courts, a shooting range, a golf course, a studio, a theatre and a recording studio.
While government policies are turning state schools into exam factories, Wellington’s head insists on a broad education for the rich advocating “teaching how to sing, dance, paint, act, write poetry, play tennis, play the guitar”. This only serves as a further insult to the dedicated staff of inner-city schools who are now expected to learn how to teach from those who only teach the super-rich.
The final chapter presents a frightening account of the future of England’s schools as local democratic control is removed and big business takes over.
It is a shame it does not take this opportunity to explore alternatives to the present hyper-competitive exam-obsessed school system.
School Wars is published by Verso, £12.99
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