Life Lessons: The Case for a National Education Service
by Melissa Benn
Published by Verso, rrp £8.99 

Review by Tim Barton

Here’s something to annoy the Thatcherites and fools that think they’re getting ‘their’ country back: a quote from the great guru of economics, Adam Smith, used by Melissa Benn in her chapter on whether Free Education is affordable:

‘The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it. There should not be a district of one square mile, without a school in it, not founded by a charitable individual, but maintained at the public expense of the people themselves.’

Amen. Benn goes on to explicate a number of reasons why we need to follow this advice, as an imperative, and how we very much can afford it, over other things the government fritter our taxes on. Indeed, how very much we cannot afford NOT to do so.

The Blairite cry of ‘Education! Education! Education!’ was one thing he offered with which I wholeheartedly agreed. The introduction of funding
via Private Finance Initiatives (an invention of Major’s Conservative government, rolled out – a lot – further under ‘New’ ‘Labour’) I stood, and still stand, wholly against. It is ‘borrow now, pay very much more later’ for short-term illusory positive effect. The other string to the Blairite bow here, academisation, forcefully pushed yet further under the Coalition and current regime, was also toxic by definition. Benn reiterates the dynamics of privatised education, and parents in Hastings – where only one school remains out of private hands (Sandown Primary) – will in many cases have twigged to the destructive nature of ‘for profit’ public schooling. Many smelt the rot even at the beginning, and indeed tried valiantly to halt it. Another problematic issue in current education policy is metrics, test-test-test measure-measure-measure – otherwise: Oh my! How can we prove that the system, that pupils, that teachers are economically viable?

Benn is at pains to elucidate not only Labour Party policy under Corbyn but, indeed, that more radical changes are needed. As the daughter of Tony Benn, she, unlike her MP sibling, has a keen awareness of the historical context of current debate and a strong commitment to change. This book’s subtitle indicates a current Labour policy, of creating a new national education service. For those who might feel we’ve been here before, she does not mean by this simply a centralised ministry. Rather, she advocates a much more democratic system, where the hierarchical pyramid is flattened to give a major voice to parents, teachers, and local authorities.

Far from supporting a three-tier system of low-brow comprehensives, middle-brow grammar schools and ‘toffs only’ elite public schools (decided not on merit but on bank balance and class), Benn would prefer to abolish private education, and stream brighter students within a shared local class-blind schooling system. One most definitely not under private ownership – whether the motivation for the investment was asset-stripping for profit, religious agendas or both – such as ARK academies, creationist lobby groups, etc. The fees and loans in universities come under scrutiny here too, with special emphasis on the marketing culture and top-down management, including from government. Little of this involves trained teachers with an ethical stake in education, rather it is packed with MBA-holders, smugly unwilling to differentiate between managing a school or a supermarket, and regarding ‘ethics’ as ‘unprofessional’ – success is measured by how well you follow orders and hit targets, even if those consist of cuts, cuts and more cuts, ‘by any means necessary’.

The toxic measuring system (Ofsted, currently: officials of which are often directors of, or in the pay of, academies!), and the deliberate under-funding by central government of local coffers, both conspire to make academies look good as compared to local authority funded schools. This aids the creation, under the guise of ‘choice’, of ‘better’ schools with competitive entry. That this scam is failing is obvious in Hastings academies, but, like PFI, is creating problems for generations to come. Only a radical commitment to change can overcome this. For Benn this includes life-long learning, as well as public ownership and involvement. ‘Cradle to grave’, as Benn forcefully argues.

Benn ends with a consideration of Tim Brighouse’s article from The Guardian, whose title sums it up nicely: ‘Rab Butler revolutionised education in 1944. Let’s do it again’!

• Life Lessons: The Case for a National Education Service is available from Printed Matter Bookshop, Queens Road, and Bookbusters, Queens Road, Hastings.


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