The main political parties agree: academies and free schools represent the future of education. So it’s particularly welcome, amid this cockle-warming unanimity, to hear a voice daring to suggest that it ain’t necessarily so. Melissa Benn’s School Wars:The Battle for Britain’s Education (Verso, 2011) is a timely intervention into an extraordinarily dissentless debate, and a much-needed reminder that the expansion of the academy programme may create as many problems as its advocates claim it will solve.
It needs to be said that Benn does not approach her subject from an unbiased position. As a leading member of the Local Schools Network, she has already nailed her colours firmly to the anti-academies mast. Nor, perhaps, do her views stray far from the path expected of such recognisable political provenance (her parents are Tony Benn and the late Caroline De Camp – the latter, especially, an ardent champion of comprehensive education). However, objectivity is hardly a defining feature of the offerings from the pro-academies contingent. Take, for example, ‘Academies and the Future of State Education’ (Astle and Ryan, 2008) from Centre Forum, the think tank that directs much Lib-Dem policy and has been spoken of warmly by Michael Gove. Contributors include Andrew Adonis (architect of New Labour’s academy programme), Dan Moynihan (Executive Director of the Harris Academies Federation) and Sir Michael Wilshaw (recently-appointed Ofsted head, whose previous positions included Principal of Mossbourne Academy and Director of Education for the Ark Academies federation). Care for a vested interest, anyone?
What marks out Benn’s tome is the breadth of its research. Nick Clegg’s damascene conversion to the academies cause appears to be the result of a wet afternoon spent perusing a flagship school’s edited highlights, and an expertly-administered Chinese burn from Tory High Command. Benn, however, bolsters her case with evidence gleaned from a range of sources, including schools that are applying for, or have converted to, academy status, and a number in Sweden (from whose model Gove claims to derive much inspiration for his expansion of free schools). School Wars traces the evolution of comprehensive education in Britain and its systematic denigration. It also presents the likely consequences of the ConDems’ fervent pursuit of policies driven less by pragmatism than ideology (despite the alacrity with which Michael Gove labels opponents of academies “ideologues”): a competitive ethos that will entrench, rather than relieve, the unenviable status of sink schools, and the reductive application of the profit motive through the intervention of private stakeholders.
The government claims that its education policies are driven by a commitment to closing the achievement gap between the most and least advantaged. This, apparently, justifies the combination of tooth-rotting lollies and thumps behind the bikesheds employed to effectively force schools down the route to academy conversion. When the argument is entangled with populist button-pushers such as discipline, results and parent power, it is, it has to be said, one that finds a sympathetic ear in large sections of an electorate that is being encouraged to see academies and free schools as the only possible breeding grounds for educational success.
However, as Benn points out, the schools inspectorate in Sweden has found that social segregation is more marked in areas in which free schools dominate. Furthermore, the principal beneficiaries of these quasi-private institutions are the children of the educated middle classes – not the socially disadvantaged youngsters that two successive governments have now cited as the raisons d’etre for their policies. Aye, there’s the rub. Tellingly, a 2011 survey of civil servants in the Department of Education elicited palpable and growing unease that current government policy has little evidence to justify its implementation.
With over half of the country’s secondary schools now academies, and primary schools starting to be identified as ripe for conversion, there is scant let-up in the momentum with which the Department of Education is encouraging and approving plans for the establishment of free schools. Careful manipulation of, for example, published data (academies, until recently, did not have to reveal whether pupils take the ‘equivalent’ qualifications that an outraged Gove claims LEA schools use to bolster their GCSE headline figures) ensures the self-fulfilling nature of government prophecy. As does the requirement that any newly-created schools must conform to the academy model.
Benn is, perhaps, too apt to cite uncritically the statistics with which New Labour argued the success of its education policies; one is reminded at such points that, impassioned as she is, she writes as one who does not know the system from the inside, and the manipulation to which it has been exposed. Still, it is vital in the interests of thorough, critical debate that we heed her plea to not go gently into what we are told is a good night from which there need be no return.