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Neil Faulkner

School Wars: the battle for Britain’s education

(13 October 2011)

Published online by Counterfire, 13 October 2011.
Copied with thanks from the Counterfire Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

School Wars exposes the relentless right wing attack on all that is best in our education system. This is demonstrably a key part of the larger attack on the welfare state, argues Neil Faulkner.

Melissa Benn
School Wars: the battle for Britain’s education
Verso 2011, 256pp.

‘State education has never commanded the same loyalty or sense of affection from the British public as the NHS,’ says Melissa Benn (p. xviii). She is right. What is equally true, however, is that working people no more want schools run by profiteers than they do hospitals. And because of that, our rulers’ agenda for state education, like that for the NHS, has perforce been hidden.

It is good, then, that sometimes there are leaks and the truth spills out. The attack on state education began way back in the 1970s. The aim was spelt out by a senior Department of Education and Science official in 1984 in a fascinating little proclamation never intended for wider public consumption. Here it is:

There has to be selection because we are beginning to create aspirations which society cannot match. In some ways, this points to the success of education, in contrast to the public mythology which has been created.

When young people drop off the education production line and cannot find work at all, or work which meets their abilities and expectations, then we are creating frustration, with perhaps disturbing consequences. We have to select: to ration the educational opportunities, so that society can cope with the output of education ...

We are in a period of considerable social change. There may be social unrest, but we can cope with the Toxteths [riots]. But if we have a highly educated and idle population, we may possibly anticipate more serious social conflict.

People must be educated once more to know their place, (Quoted in G. Walford, 1990, Privatisation and Privilege in Education, p. 1)

When I first read this many years ago, I thought it was a spoof – especially that final sentence. But it is not: it is an expression of the sentiments driving an attempt to destroy our comprehensive schools and replace them with a divided education system based on selection, inequality, and profiteering.

That is why, as Benn explains, state schools have been subject to relentless attack by politicians and hack-journalists who do not use them. What virtually everyone wants is good, free, local schools for all. Comprehensive schools are designed to offer this, and, though the system has never been truly comprehensive – because of surviving grammar and private schools – all the indications are that the overall effect has been to raise educational standards generally, and, in particular, to improve the prospects for children who might previously have been labelled as ‘failures’ at the age of eleven and dumped in an underfunded ‘secondary modern’.

Melissa Benn herself – the daughter of Labour politician Tony Benn and socialist educationalist Caroline Benn – went to Holland Park Comprehensive in Islington. Only 12 of the 200 or so intake in 1962 had passed the 11-plus exam. Yet 66 of this year-group eventually chalked up a total of 129 A-level passes between them.

The international comparisons support the British evidence: ‘whether it is Finland or South Korea or the province of Alberta in Canada, genuinely non-selective education systems routinely top the world league tables’ (p. 101). It is not difficult to understand why this should be so. It is commonsense that if you label children as ‘failures’, they are likely to become demoralised and demotivated. And sure enough, every scrap of educational research into the matter has demonstrated precisely this.

Benn is excellent at documenting the relentless and baseless attacks on a ‘failing’ school system, from Alastair Campbell’s sneer about ‘bog-standard comprehensives’ to the sensationalist ‘undercover’ articles that appear in papers like the Mail and the Standard about comprehensives that are supposedly sinking into primordial chaos.

The problem for the British ruling class, its middle-class supporters, and their media echo-chambers is that most people approve of their children’s schools. A British Social Attitudes survey published six months after the 2010 election found that public satisfaction with both health and education had improved dramatically over the previous twenty years. To justify ‘reform’, therefore, the neoliberal elite has been forced to construct a negative image of generic disorder, decline, and failure which bears no relation to most people’s actual experience. And the cause of the disaster? As Benn explains; ‘Virtually all problems in state schools are laid at the door of poor teachers, middle-class liberals, and an ineffectual and over-controlling state’ (p. 22).


The ruling class has four aims. First, it wants to restore selection, so that working class children can be socialised more effectively for low-grade labour; taught, that is, ‘once more to know their place’. Because selection is discredited and unpopular, it is the desire that cannot speak its name. Benn talks of ‘soft-focus selection’ in a fragmented system offering a dazzling choice of ‘faith schools, foundation schools, free schools, city academies, the new academies, comprehensives (an increasingly meaningless term in such a fractured landscape), and colleges’ (p. 170). Methods of selection are as varied as the types of school, and many are covert, such as targeted marketing in higher-income suburbs, or holding banding tests in places and at times likely to deter lower-income parents.


The second aim complements the first. Selection is about socialisation for labour. So, too, is right-wing hostility to pretty well all forms of child-centred education. The attack on the comprehensive began as long ago as 1969 with the publication of the first of a series of Black Papers – a series of articles written by educationalists, historians, and novelists. Brian Cox has described how he and co-author Tony Dyson came up with the idea for writing the first because they were both ‘angry about the student sit-ins which were headline news at the time, and which we believed were causing harm to the status of universities and freedom of speech’ (p. 63). The problem perceived by these self-appointed crusaders was, it seems, that young people were no longer sufficiently deferential.

Sure enough, forty years later, the schools being held up as models by the political elite are those in which the testing, labelling, regimentation, and bullying of children are greatest. Like Michael Wilshaw’s much-vaunted Mossbourne Community Academy in Hackney. ‘When we entered a classroom,’ reports Benn, ‘he would randomly choose a child, and say: “So and So, you came to this school with level 3 English. What are you hoping to get in your key stage 3 tests?” “Level 6, sir.” “That’s right. Level 6. Don’t forget to use ambitious vocabulary. Good boy”’ (p. 133).

What this approach to education replicates is the character of the call-centre and the supermarket checkout. Instead of the self-driven development of the interests and capacities of each individual – with its inherent danger of unfettered aspiration – there is conformity, a crushing of the spirit, and a world made safe for capital.


The third aim of the education ‘reforms’ – and one no less well hidden than the restoration of selection – is privatisation. According to some estimates, the education market is already worth £100 billion. State education is now stalked and milked by giant chain-conglomerates claiming to be ‘specialists’ in the provision of ‘education services’. Amey, for example, with 11,000 staff in some 200 UK locations, ‘trumpets a range of education-related services, including ten major education partnerships, and contracts for services ranging from school improvement and special educational needs to the delivery and management of new schools, encompassing cleaning, catering, janitorial, security, and building and grounds maintenance’ (pp. 118–119).

Central to the Con-Dem Government’s education policy is fast-tracking of the creation of ‘free schools’ and ‘academies’ in place of schools under the control of local authorities. In Benn’s words, ‘a democratically accountable public service, nationally directed but locally administered, [is] fast being replaced by a state-subsidised and centrally controlled quasi-market’ (p. 32).

This is being done by bribing some schools to break ranks, and then blackmailing the rest into following suit for fear they will otherwise be seen as local authority ‘sinks’. The key instrument of disintegration is central-government control of funding. The beneficiaries will be the profiteers circling the fragmenting state system, offering services previously provided by local authorities.

Union busting

Finally, there is the relentless war of attrition against organised labour. With only 15% of private sector workers unionised, the big battalions are now in the public sector, where union membership is around 50%. The teachers are especially well organised. When Cameron and Gove talk of the ‘educational establishment’ and ‘the forces of resistance’, it is the teaching unions they have in mind, not least for the long-standing commitment of many of them to progressive reform and equality of opportunity in schools.

Fragmentation of the education system is designed to set school against school and teacher against teacher; it deliberately fosters competition where there should be community and solidarity. It is a mortal threat to existing trade union organisation, a threat formalised, as Benn points out, in the fact that ‘academies are not required to abide by national pay and conditions for teachers and support staff’ (p. 109).

Against ‘choice and diversity’

Benn’s analysis of the problem is excellent. As it happens, I have also just read The Plot Against the NHS by Colin Leys and Stewart Player. The pattern they outline for the health service is exactly the same: the gradual destruction of a valued public service by marketisation and privatisation; the aim shrouded in secrecy and lies, so that no proper democratic debate takes place; and the role of competitive pressure and bullying neoliberal management in eroding co-operation, community, and solidarity. To read both books is to grasp our rulers’ determination to destroy the welfare state, to understand their methods, and to learn how far they have already advanced towards their goal.

But the last section of the book – offering ‘a new school model for the a new century’ – is weak. There are two problems here. First, concessions are made to the neoliberal right that are indefensible on the basis of the argument of the rest of the book. Apparently, we need testing of some sort because of ‘the understandable anxiety about standards’ (p. 197). Yet a convincing argument has been put that: a) educational standards have been rising steadily for decades; b) this is due largely to the effect of comprehensive education in motivating children; and c) ‘anxiety about standards’ is a moral panic constructed by the neoliberal elite to justify an attack on state education.

Then we are told that ‘the private sector will always have an important voice in the national dialogue about education’ (pp. 199–200). Really? Maybe I am being churlish, but personally I do not want Richard Branson, Philip Green, or Bob Diamond having any say whatsoever on the education of my children. Call me a boggle-eyed Trot if you like – or even just a Guardian-reading pinko – but I happen to believe that the only people who should have any say in our schools are the people who work in them, the people who use them, and the people who know about education. And nowhere in the rest of the book was I offered any evidence at all that business ‘expertise’ (whatever that is) has any relevance to how we run our schools.

Nor do I agree that ‘parents and pupils should retain their current right to express a preference at secondary transfer’ (p. 202). I no more agree with this than I agree that patients should be ‘choosing’ medical services. What people want when they are sick is good, fast, easy-to-get-to care. What people want in education is a good local school for every child. Benn has been at pains to expose the ‘choice and diversity’ proclaimed by the exponents of ‘the new schools revolution’ as fraudulent – as populist cover for a reactionary assault on comprehensive state education. She has described the way in which class identity is formed in the struggle for secondary school places. She has talked of ‘the twin threads of class anxiety and class ambition’ woven into the fabric of the system (p. 44). Why dump the argument at the last minute?

Organising resistance

Perhaps it is a sense of hopelessness. Effective resistance to the education ‘reforms’ has been minimal to date, and Benn is unable to offer any clear strategy for defending the comprehensive system. She is passionate about the sorts of schools we ought to have, but describing the ideal is useless without discussing the means to achieve it.

Anti-academy campaigns are now being overwhelmed by the sheer momentum of Gove’s drive to demolish the old system. In St Albans, where my children go to school, it took only one or two secondaries to go for academy status last year to start an avalanche.

Competitive pressure works like an acid dissolving the glue that holds integrated public services together. Just as it turns hospital against hospital, so it turns school against school, with closure the ultimate sanction for ‘failed’ institutions. This, of course, provides a framework for the ‘class anxiety and class ambition’ of parents unable to afford private education to run rampant, reinforcing division and fragmentation, widening the gap between ‘good schools’ and ‘bad schools’, and underwriting the drive to selection and social apartheid.

Since the 1980s, the British ruling class has been engaged in a long-term programme to overturn the post-war welfare settlement. This programme has deep roots – in the long-term decline of British capitalism, in a crisis of profitability dating from the 1960s, and in the struggle against a powerful working-class movement which peaked in the early 1970s. Put simply, the consistent aim has been to shrink the relatively generous ‘social wage’ won by working-class action between 1945 and 1975, to undermine working-class resistance through unemployment, casualisation, and de-unionisation, and to create new opportunities for profiteering by privatising and outsourcing public services.

The simple fact is that what is happening to our schools is part of a generalised, long-term, ruling-class offensive against the unions, public services, and the welfare state – with the crisis and the cuts now being used as an excuse to fast-forward this offensive. If we try and fight piecemeal – school by school, town by town, union by union – we may win some short-term sectional victories. But we will not win the war unless we weld every struggle into a single, national, united campaign against austerity and privatisation – a struggle powerful enough to make Britain ungovernable for those who would destroy the welfare state – a struggle powerful enough to make a reality of our claim that another world is possible.

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