Melissa Benn: State Champion

  • Melissa Benn: State Champion

“How many people know that the grammar school system was finally finished off by furious Tory voters?”

The failure of comprehensive education has been not so much exaggerated, as utterly fabricated, insists guest columnist…

As an out and proud supporter of comprehensive education, I am often involved in debates on education. I have lost count of the number of passionate, occasionally fraught, conversations I have had around other parents’ kitchen tables or in more public forums like meeting halls or radiostudios.

What always surprises me is how little the views of so many people have shifted since I was a happy and busy teenager in a comprehensive in the early 70s or a youngish parent, in the mid 1990s, proud to educate our young daughters in local state schools. Over and over again, I would hear the same unreasonably negative, and wildly inaccurate, views of state education. And I still do.

At the root of these is what I have come to call the Foundation Myth of all UK education debate: namely, that Comprehensive Education Has Failed. Snapping at its heels are those old favourites: Comprehensive Education is Anti-Learning and/or A Well Meant Piece of Social Engineering that has gone horribly wrong.

Horribly wrong? What, then, of the overwhelming evidence that comprehensive education has offered untold opportunities for higher and further education to young people, particularly young women and working class students, written off during the years of the national 11+? How many people know that the grammar school system was finally finished off by furious Tory voters, fed up at their children being considered educational rejects before they even reached puberty? Or that current grammar schools not only largely educate affluent children but increase the educational divide between well off and poor families in the areas where they exist?

You only have to ask anyone who is talking up the excellence of a selective system whether they would like to bring back secondary moderns for the majority of children to find the argument swings back to talk of ‘chance for all.’ Another strand of debate that has long frustrated me is the constant comparison of expensive private schools, with their superior resources and freedom to pick and choose pupils, with local schools: these, charged with the education of all incomers, including those battered by poverty and family troubles. How many people realise that, adjusting for these social and economic realities, state schools do a better job of educating their pupils?

You get my drift by now. There is a pressing need to correct a whole raft of misinformation about schools – and teachers; misinformation that is endlessly echoed not just in the right-leaning tabloids, but within the ‘balanced’ BBC and other broadcasters. (Channel Four’s excellent Fact Check is an honourable exception here.)

School Myths –And the Evidence That Blows Them Apart, popular misconceptions, although we could easily have added more. Not surprisingly, we begin by tackling that famed foundation myth, Comprehensive Education Has Failed, in order to show the many ways in which non-selective education has succeeded and the reasons why a return to the 11+ would prove educationally regressive, socially unjust and highly unpopular.

We then go onto tackle one of key questions of this era: does privatisation of our education system, in the form of academies and free schools, provide the magic bullet for school improvement? Do we, in fact, we need local bodies to enable school to school collaboration and fairness in admissions, thereby facilitating genuine school improvement? We also take an in-depth look at whether progressive education is really ruining state schools or teacher qualifications matter.

You may have guessed some of the headline answers but, I promise, the book is packed full of interesting information! I am sure that teachers, many of whom have had a really rotten time of it in recent years, will recognise the multiple ways in which ‘school myths’ have made your job so hard, and will welcome our attempt to provide a more balanced picture of pressures and difficulties.

But we also wrote it for all those parents, gathered round the kitchen table, who want a good local school for their child but are too often encouraged to distrust state education at every turn. It is time, I think, for school obsessed parents to educate themselves on the realities of our complex, hierarchical system. A little less individual anxiety or pushy parent ambition and a little more righteous citizen anger could still push our politicians in a more productive direction.

After all, a general election looms, and education is fast moving up the agenda as everyone jostles to provide a post-Gove-ian vision. After so much upheaval in our schools we need a change of emphasis, including a period of sober reflection about where to go next.

As part of that effort, Fiona Millar – a regular Teach Secondary columnist – and I, now plan a companion volume to School Myths, provisionally entitled School Solutions - And The Way to Put Them in Action. Between us, we’ve sat in too many kitchens, meeting halls and radio studios not, at least, to try to come up with some thoughtful answers to the many still unsolved problems of our education system.

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