The Truth About Our Schools - full text of the speech by Melissa Benn to mark the publication of "The Truth About Our Schools"

Melissa Benn's picture

Thank you, I am delighted to be here.


This book is a truly collaborative effort, a distillation of the thinking and writing of the four founders of the Local Schools Network over many years,  and Janet Downs, our most prolific contributor. 


Obviously I am a little partial but I think this book will be really useful to many people: teachers, would-be teachers, parents, journalists and academics. 


For a start, it’s organised in such a way as to make it very easy to use.


Want to check out an idea that has long frustrated you or perhaps one that you find convincing?


Comprehensive education has failed?  


Academies raise standards? 


Private Education has the magic DNA?


Turn to the relevant chapter, read through a summary of the myth in question, then read through the counter argument and evidence.  At the very least, it will start an interesting train of thought or discussion. 


And given that tonight we are at a major London university, it’s worth pointing out that this book might even make a good teaching tool!


What I want to do tonight is look at some of our myths in more detail but to put them in a living, breathing,  political context. 


Why? For each myth is not just a powerful half-truth or discredited argument,  yet one still in wide circulation, but these same myths have frequently laid the basis or provided the justification, for damaging policy reform that has taken our schools in the wrong direction. 


By the same token, the book is not an exercise in oppositional polemic. (For this is surely one of the greatest myths of politics in general: that those who govern and make laws are in some way neutral, above the business of politics itself,  while those who oppose are disruptively ‘political.’)


Taken together, these eight chapters, and the other material collected there, represent the outline of a serious, alternative argument about how our education system could be be run.


I will return to our proposals briefly at the end.



How it all began 


Fiona has already described the origin of Local Schools Network.


How we, a group of London parents, with, between us, many decades of experience of local schools, got together informally. 


Francis was a teacher, now working here at Goldsmiths, and a governor of his local secondary in Tower Hamlets.  Fiona and Henry are both highly experienced governors in Camden and Hackney respectively. I was involved, for many years, in supporting my local primary and secondary school in Brent. Janet, who came along later, is both parent and grandparent, had taught at a secondary modern in Lincolnshire, an experience which educated her first hand in the absurdity and injustice of the 11+


All of us shared a strong commitment not just to state education but a strong belief in the potential of comprehensive education, the positive role that inclusive local schools play in society: and between ourselves we debated, and still do, many ideas for school improvement.


But we also shared a growing frustration at the way that so many politicians and writers and broadcasters talked about these issues, many of them with no experience whatsoever of state education or local schools.  


In particular, we were galvanised by a particular political moment which I shall call Gove-ism.


Neo-liberalism on amphetamines


Of course, both Thatcherism and New Labour,  in their very different ways, laid the basis for the reforms of 2010 onwards. Those well-established connections are for another discussion, another day.


But from 2010 we saw what I would call neo-liberalism on amphetamines.


This expressed itself in the emergence of unofficial coalition of new right reformers.


This group has sometimes been called  (although it may have been originally by me!) the new school revolutionaries or new educational evangelists.  


At the centre of it was an erudite, energetic and excitable individual called Michael Gove, who became Secretary of State for Education in May 2010, and who had a strong personal passion about the transforming possibilities of education.


He was surrounded by a cast of compelling characters: 


These included the journalist Toby Young, a former provocative cultural journalist,  who came to embrace traditionalism and famously set up his own free school.


Katherine Birbalsingh, the south London teacher and blogger, who was cheered to the rafters when she stood up at  Tory Party Conference in 2010 and said the system is broken ‘because it kept poor children poor’.


Rachel Wolf of the New Schools Network, a privately educated Cambridge graduate, who at just 25 was given half a million pounds and put in charge of an organisation to encourage a network of free schools that would, of course,  never make any of the stupid mistakes of existing state schools. 


Then there were the policy wonks, the special advisers, the blue skies thinkers, figures like Sam Freedman and James O’Shaughnessy, Jonathan Simons and Dominic Cummings who, between them, worked at the Department for Education, Downing Street and for think tanks like the Policy Exchange. 

Add to this the leading players such as Teach First or the larger, more effective academy chains such as ARK and Harris. The latter was set up by powerful, wealthy individuals with an evangelical mission not just to reform state education but to eliminate the role of the local state in so doing. 


In more recent years, the ranks of the new school revolutionaries have been swelled by a number of young teachers highly critical of what they saw as the dominance of ‘progressive’ education, figures like Daisy Christodoulou and Robert Peal. 


I mention these individuals and groups not because I have a particular animus towards them but because I have learned over time just how much politics is shaped by the alchemy of particular characters, interest groups and other economic and social factors.


History will, I am sure, judge this group loosely gathered around Gove and the Coalition as probably the most dominant and successful group of new right thinkers on education since the Black Paper contributors of the 1960s. 


Their moral passion is almost 19th century in its intensity: their belief that the lives and chances of the poor can be radically improved by a mix of philanthropy,  exhortation and traditional methods of instruction. 


But its also very 21st century in its reliance on central government and corporate power.


They have been supported in many of their reforms by a largely spineless and often woefully uninformed media ( and this theme recurs again and again in in our book and our campaigning work in general) who have all contributed to enduring power of many of the myths we deal with. 



Comprehensive success


In the first chapter we tackle what I often call the ‘foundational myth’ of modern education: Comprehensive Education Has Failed.


Here, we take a deeper look at the many, almost subliminal, ways in which that argument has been conveyed, over and over ( and I mean over).


So just to take a few examples:


 ‘Schoolchildren ‘being failed by comprehensive education’, ‘Comprehensive schools failing poor pupils’, Comprehensive schools have failed the working class’, ‘What about the comprehensive failures?’ ‘ A choice in which the only option ends up being the failing local comprehensive is not choice at all’. 


You get the picture.


Then there are the wise words of columnists such as Peter Hitchens who has seriously argued that ‘the comprehensive system is anti-education’ or perhaps my favourite example of pure idiocy -  the claim by writer Tony Parsons that, ‘ As a start in life, going to a comprehensive is right up there with dying on the Somme.’


Then we are told, over and over again, about how, under the grammar/secondary modern divide of the post war years, the grammar schools provided a route to the top for a few men and women modest background ( which it did)  but learn nothing of the many hundreds of thousands, the millions surely,  who failed their 11 plus and were, in effect, written off before puberty.


We very rarely hear of the hundreds and thousands who failed at grammars. According to the Crowther Report in the late 50s a staggering 38% of of grammar school pupils failed to achieve more than three passes at O level.


Nor are we often - ever? - told of how, as a result of comprehensive reform in the 60s and 70s, hundreds of thousands more young people have been able to gain qualifications and go to university. 


The number of students in education at age 17 grew from 31% in 1977 to 76% in 2011 and those achieving a degree rose from 68,000 in 1981 to 331,000 in 2010: this,  an almost five fold increase.


I doubt that many people know that some of the most successful education systems around the world are comprehensive or that the OECD makes a direct link between school success and those systems that don’t divide children up by so called ‘ability.’


And do we hear enough about the thousands of brilliant non-selective schools around the country which successfully educate children of all talents and backgrounds together?


However, for all the enduring prejudice against the ‘c’ word, it is worth noting that many on the political right have finally come to recognise if not the previous achievements of comprehensive education ( a large scale educational change largely initiated by Labour governments and powered by highly expert progressive thinkers and practitioners,  now crudely characterised and dismissed as the Blob)  then certainly its extraordinary potential.


Finally, they grasp how counter productive it is to segregate children at age 11, largely on grounds of social class, so suppressing the educational (and life) chances of millions of poorer children.


Sir Michael Wilshaw, the ferocious chief inspector of schools, who knows a thing or two about education, is passionately anti-grammar schools which he has memorably described as ‘stuffed full of middle class kids.’


Michael Gove himself talked often of ‘non selective excellence’ which is by the way (a bit of helpful decoding here) tends to be the new right’s phrase for comprehensive education.

Indeed, when Michael Gove was finally demoted by David Cameron in the early summer of 2014, because he really had become toxic to teachers and Cameron knew he had to lose him to win the election, Sam Freedman, Gove’s former special adviser, now a senior figure at Teach First, wrote of Gove on his blog:


Perhaps his greatest achievement has been to normalise comprehensive education for the Conservative party; to shift the argument from ‘saving’ a few bright poor kids through grammar schools or assisted places to creating a genuinely world class system for all.   In time I suspect this will be more widely recognised than it is now.


Sadly, Nicky Morgan, Gove’s replacement, the Education Secretary since 2014, seems not to grasp the significance of this shift, given her recent decision to approve a supped ‘annex’ to an existing grammar school in Sevenoaks, Kent, thus opening the floodgates to significant expansion of the grammar estate: a foolish decision. 


Comprehensive differences 


But while the new right might talk about ‘non selective excellence’ they have a very different idea of how such a system might look. 


To begin with, they do not fundamentally want to change the status quo.


They want to maintain a clear, if often subtle,  hierarchy of schools both between private and state schools, and within the state system.


In fact, as we show in Chapter 7, tackling the myth that Private Schools Have the Magic DNA,  they believe that private schools have a lot to teach the poor benighted state system, although the evidence is not that convincing, largely because their analysis of the reasons for private school success is itself flawed. 


Whereas we at the Local Schools Network believe in a more genuinely comprehensive system, which would mean a move towards fairer admissions.  


‘Admissions’ can often seem like a rather teccy subject: in fact this question lies at the very heart of contemporary educational politics.


In brief: over the past five years ( and once again, government policy has built on the action or inaction of previous governments, of all political stripes) more and more schools have been given ever greater control of their admissions: in effect, allowing them to pick and choose their pupils.


In today’s highly competitive league table climate, those schools that can select their intake have a huge advantage.


One of the most damning reports on school admissions was put together by Barnardo’s, the children’s charity, in 2010, which showed how so many school admissions policies ‘locked out’ poorer children. (And it has all got a lot worse now.)


As Fiona Millar explains so lucidly, in a piece reprinted (from her excellent Guardian column) at the end of this book, some schools are permitted to select by faith, (which can be a covert way of selecting for social or family background); some by aptitude tests ( which no-one has ever been able to distinguish from tests for ability); some covertly use banned practices such as long forms or even interviews; some utilise banding tests that skew their intake in favour of higher achieving children; and some use all of these combined. 


In recent months there have even been reports of schools, such as the inner London comprehensive that David Cameron and Michael Gove have sent their children to, asking for a significant donation from prospective parents, even though this is clearly against the law.


Those schools that can engineer their intake to the motivated, the affluent, the already academically achieving are very often called ‘successful’ comprehensives whereas those schools that must take all-comers, often the children and families who have not already been selected by other schools, are often labelled ‘sink schools.’ 


My point today is simply this: do not believe the propaganda put out by the DfE and a host of newspapers ( and very often the schools themselves) that good schools are good merely because of their school ‘type’ or their ‘ethos’,  be it a faith school, a free school or an academy. 


They have very often been handed significant advantages whether in terms of admissions, design of their own catchment area, favourable funding, or official approval.


What’s more,  those schools that can engineer a favourable intake often set up a ‘virtuous circle’ which in today’s climate enables them to further attract and create yet more resources, opportunities and positive publicity.


LSN believes reform is urgently needed to ensure that schools have more genuinely balanced intakes, to counter social and ethnic segregation and growing religious intolerance, and to make sure that schools genuinely reflect their community. 


.The Heart of the Matter


Now I want to turn to what is in many ways the heart of our book, the four central chapters which take on the argument that choice, competition and marketisation is the way forward for our education system. 


These four chapters are:


Local authorities control and hold back schools (Chapter 2)


Choice competition and markets are the route to educational success (Chapter 3)


Choice will improve education in England( Chapter 4)


Academies raise standards. (Chapter 5)


These all touch on the new right’s central belief in market solutions to public services, diminishing public accountability except in the most top down centralised fashion.


In brief, the story line here is as follows:


Our education system would work better if it ran more like the private sector, without the so called heavy- handed interference of local authorities and the inefficient drag of democratic accountability. 


Schools would be better if they could compete against each other, if parents could act like consumers and flock to the good schools or even set up their own. 


Good schools would then expand and bad schools would wither and die.


Schools would be sleeker and more efficient if teachers were paid according to their performance: such performance being largely determined by test results.( Plus that would keep those pesky teachers on their toes!)


At the heart of this strategy is the the independent state school, also known as an academy or free school ( a free school is only an academy started up from scratch), contracted directly to government and bypassing local authority involvement.


These new schools, we are repeatedly told, will outperform the bad old local authority ones, making a key part of the strategy to rubbish local authorities and their role in education at every turn:  to suggest, at one and the same time, that these local authorities are both over controlling and under performing, Stalinist and chaotic. 


In fact, this myth Local authorities control and hold back schools, is above all others quite the easiest to demolish. 


Local authorities do not ‘run’ any schools( they haven’t for decades) but they can support, if allowed to, their local family of schools in a  number of important ways including managing admissions, organising school places ( again, only if they are allowed to, and we are now seeing the disruptive consequence of their role being supplanted by an inefficient market in school places) and making sure children with special needs get a fair deal.


In short, they offer vital services and support. 


Indeed, some local authorities ( I am thinking of Hackney, Tower Hamlets, Hampshire, among many)  provide first class support for their local family of schools, and are almost certainly a chief reason for the overall success of those borough’s schools. 


But where would you read that in today’s media?



When in doubt go abroad


In 2010, we were told: look at the Swedish free schools and the American charter schools which give parents real choice and have produced miraculous results, particularly for poorer children.  


In 2010-11 Michael Gove spoke a good deal about Sweden. 


That is: until it became clear that Swedish free schools did not produce a sustained gain in school results, tended to benefit more privileged children and increased social and ethnic segregation.


Plus, surprise surprise, when you put private companies in charge of education they are in danger of going bust, as private companies can do, leaving pupils stranded.  In 2013 a major for-profit provider of free schools in Sweden, JB Education, filed for bankruptcy; 10,000 pupils read about the bankruptcy in the media while negotiations ensued about a takeover. 


We hear little of Sweden now.


Charter schools in the USA  were also promoted as a progressive educational alternative, particularly for black and working class parents, luring them from an apparently failing local school system. 


But again the evidence was mixed ( early surveys revealed charter schools showed gains in some areas, but existing schools outperformed them in others)  and worrying.


It emerged that some of the most publicised and hugely successful charter schools, like the celebrated Harlem Children Zone, had the kind of cradle to college funding that most schools could only dream of, and certainly couldn’t be replicated on any area or nationwide level.


The zero tolerance approach of many KIPP ( Knowledge is Power Programme) schools resulted in more black and ethnic minority students being excluded than in other schools.


Many charters have narrowed down idea of success. Tests.Tests. Tests. Drill and kill. Military discipline. Increasingly, teachers are being judged, and paid, by the result of these tests.


As Diane Ravitch, a strong advocate of good ‘public’ (state) education in the US, argues, three core principles are being ignored by corporate reformers behind the charter school movement;  first, that public education is a public good and that a broad and balanced curriculum should be on offer to all children, whatever their social and economic background; second, that a for-profit ethos in education means schools inevitably cut corners and deprive children of necessary resources and a rich experience; thirdly, that poverty clearly has a negative impact on many children’s ability to learn and that politicians should concentrate on alleviating inequality rather than overload beleaguered teachers and hard pressed students.



Home grown problems


And what about our own miracle new schools?  


It is really impossible to overestimate the hype that surrounded free schools  when they were launched in this country in 2010.


As for the myth of academy superiority, well this too has become entrenched in public thinking thanks largely to government propaganda, and media complicity.


The Department for Education has become the most public and partial cheerleader for academy success, even when no such success exists, while blatantly ignoring the achievements of other school types.  


In Academies raise standards, we comb very carefully through all the evidence. We examine the findings of a series of official reports, going right back to the first sponsored academies of the early New Labour years. It is patently clear: from the start there were serious questions and concerns.


As early as 2005 the Commons Education Committee was questioning the huge investment in an as yet unproven scheme which lacked ‘rigorous evaluation.’ In the same year, a report by Price Waterhouse Cooper  ( which the government failed to publish) also presented a mixed picture of their success.  


In 2007 the Public Accounts Committee warned that ‘ academies are in danger of being regarded by politicians as a panacea for a broad range of education problems.’


More recently, here on the Local Schools Network, our own Henry Stewart has done a rigorous statistical analysis of exam results, year on year, which shows that the claim for the superiority of sponsored academies simply doesn’t stand up.


As Henry says in his latest analysis of GCSE results for 2015, ‘Sponsored secondary academies improve at a slower rate than similar non academies. Sponsored primary academies improve at a slower rate than similar non academies. Schools that are rated by Ofsted as "inadequate" are more likely to remain "inadequate" if they become sponsored academies.’  

Whatever the point of comparison - rates of improvement of GCSE results,  achievement in history, geography or languages, disingenuous use of vocational equivalents to boost results, achievements of students on pupil premium  -  maintained schools come out better. And the results are the same in the primary sector.


The DfE has never contradicted Henry’s claims.


Henry has also analysed the poor performance of the multiplying academy chains, many of which ( ironically? tragically?) are far more controlling than the local authorities they were designed to replace.



Fact checking the free schools


Free schools are much fewer in number, and many have not yet entered pupils for public exams, not that this has stopped government ministers from repeatedly claiming that these schools are already ‘driving up standards across the board.’


Yet early studies of free school admissions suggested that some were clearly excluding poorer children.


In 2014 a number of free schools were found to be of worryingly low educational quality or poorly managed. 


Claims by the Policy Exchange in 2015 that free schools improve the results of neighbouring schools were discredited within days of being published.


Also in 2015 the Education Select Committee concluded that ‘it was too early to draw conclusions on the quality of education provided.’


Despite this, the government has poured billions of pounds into creating and propping up this free market style experiment, creating havoc in terms of local and national planning,  and not even significantly boosting results. 




Clearly one part of the plan, for some new school revolutionaries, was to slowly facilitate the transfer of these semi-independent institutions into completely private control, allowing companies to make a profit. 


Michael Gove has said in the past that he would be happy to see Serco running schools, although I wonder if the recent findings of the Panorama programme on Serco management of a young offender’s institution might give the free marketeers pause for thought.


But to return to our international examples, it is clear that for-profit education is unstable, unethical and corrupts basic educational values.



Progressively more interesting


Finally, I want to touch on the subject of our final chapter, Progressive education lowers standards (Chapter Eight.)


In 2013 Michael Gove gave a much publicised speech in which he claimed that state education had been effectively ruined by ‘progressive methods.’


He misrepresented key reports of the past, such as the 1967 Plowden report into reform of English primary education, used dodgy  survey results ( uncovered by our own fearsome investigator Janet Downs) to justify his arguments, and made the completely ahistorical claim that state education in the past had little respect for knowledge, discipline or intellectual ambition. 


I was sorry to see the Chief Inspector of Schools Michael Wilshaw make similarly extreme remarks about comprehensive schools in the past, including my old school Holland park. 


I was at Holland Park in the late 60s and 70s;  we had blazers, ties, the lot. We had a formal house system and were taught using very conventional methods. There was even corporal punishment, and senior leaders wore black flowing gowns  and were served at High Table ( by domestic science students as I recall) as if they were at Oxford and Cambridge. 


Of course, things changed in the 70s because society changed in the 70s but that was little to do with comprehensive education.


And yes, there were some experimental state schools in the 60s and 70s; some were interesting, one or two were outrageous, but these were few and far between between.


Most of the really experimental schools were in the private system, as it happened. 



The real agenda


Behind this stained attack on so called ‘progressive education’ is, I believe,  a quite different agenda: to fundamentally alter the character of our education system.


We have already seen the widespread dismantling of effective teacher education with teacher training shifting from universities ( home of the much despised Blob)  to schools, and in the case of Teach First schemes, pruning initial education back to a number of weeks.  


Indeed, now teachers do not need to be qualified at all, a damaging move that we discuss in Chapter 6:  Teachers Don’t Need Qualifications.


Chris Husbands, director of the Institute of Education, has spoken of how educational leaders in other countries cannot‘believe what we are doing in terms of deregulation.’


Raising a false alarm about the widespread nature, and harm done, by so called ‘progressive education’ has also justified the introduction of a much more prescriptive curriculum,  yet more tests and exams,  and judging all schools and all pupils on a narrow academic curriculum.


It has neglected the development of a meaningful vocational provision and proper apprenticeships. 


In fact, possibly one of the most disingenuous acts of the early Gove revolution was to use a mass of worthless vocational exams to boost the results of academies.



Losing sight of learning


As a result of these wilful distortions, we have lost sight of what ’progressive’ education really means, and how a variety of approaches to teaching and learning can boost pupil achievement and - yes, dare I say it - enjoyment.


Our own Francis Gilbert has written brilliantly about how you might teach maths through dance or how teachers might learn from the ideas of ‘promiscuous collaboration’ celebrated by David Bowie. 


In the book we gives examples of schools that take a different approach to knowledge acquisition, often with stunning results,  putting emphasis not on didactic approaches but student inquiry, project work and collaboration with others, within and outside the classroom. 


One of the most successful primary schools in the country, Wroxham primary school in Hertfordshire, refuses to talk about ability at all, concentrating instead on student curiosity, inquiry, oracy and literacy, and drawing on the exciting ideas of the Learning without Limits network. 


Children thrive in the school which is judged outstanding by all the conventional Ofsted markers.


Here, once again, genuinely progressive reformers are ahead of the game.


Schools of the future will, I predict, increasingly look at how to abolish fixed ideas about ability, particularly in the early years of secondary school, using concepts such as that of ‘growth mindsets’  pioneered by Carol Dweck, rather than relying on  stultifying old-style systems of streaming and stratifying students throughout their school life.


Our vision


Taken together, then,  our demolition of the key myths of the new right adds up to a very different approach to education:


One that salutes the major achievements of comprehensive education so far but urgently wants further to consolidate, and improve upon, them.


One that believes in a role for rational local and national planning in everything from school building to teacher education and recruitment. 


One that values its teaching force and wants to educate them properly, pay them well and leave them free to do a creative, professional job


One that believes in positive discipline, and high expectations for all students.


One that believes in collaboration, rather than competition,  between schools, and the important role that schools play in local communities.


One that encourages positive, well thought out reform of qualifications and exams.  (With young people now staying in education until 18 we urgently need a new framework for the secondary years, possibly abolishing GCSEs, and introducing a baccalaureate type system that will have more flexibility and challenge within it.) 


One that keeps our schools in public hands and does not sell them off to for-profit providers. 


 Above all, we need a political class that does not put the blame for society’s ills on an already overstrained, underfunded public service. 


We need politicians that do their job: creating employment, proper apprenticeships, building and providing affordable housing, supporting health care and reducing inequality.  


Leaving schools sufficiently well resourced and supported to do their job, which is impart knowledge, nurture skills, creativity and a love of learning, and provide proper guidance to our young people on their future paths in life.



Thank you. 


This is a full text of the speech by Melissa Benn at Goldsmith's College, University of London on January 19 2016

"The Truth About Our Schools: Exposing the Myths, Exploring the Evidence" by Melissa Benn and Janet Downs is published by Routledge.

LSN readers can get a 20% discount on the book by quoting the promotional code LTSN6 when they order via the Routledge website.



 This lecture can also be watched here

The Question and Answer session that followed the lecture can be watched here



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