Book Review: The academic battlefield


To give Melissa Benn her due, she is well aware of the fractious territory covered by her new book on the British education system.  The title School Wars is not chosen lightly: the end of her introduction she argues we are at a key point in a ‘long and harsh battle’ over comprehensive education, with passionate advocates on both sides.  It is perhaps unsurprising that this ringing endorsement of the comprehensive system has a positive review in The Guardian, and no review at all in The Telegraph.

Benn might be supporting comprehensive schools, but she chiefly does so through thoroughly argued attacks on new academies and ‘free schools’.  From picking apart the flaws in the Swedish and American models for these schools, to posing uncomfortable questions about what might happen to pupils if a private backer were to abandon a struggling school, Benn is at her best in this powerful criticism of the coalition’s new policies.

Private and Grammar schools receive less attention, presumably as they are not the current battleground.  On the other hand they are scrutinized: the problems in comprehensive education are laid at the door of these elite schools that ‘cream off’ the best pupils and leave so-called ‘comprehensives’ to deal with only the worst-off pupils.

However this rhetoric reveals one of many contradictions Benn struggles with. In her final chapter she argues that ‘every child has the right to flourish’ and to be treated personally as a ‘unique being’.  Yet she has no problem viewing intelligent children as a resource to be ‘creamed off’ or ‘robbed’ from the state sector.  One of the biggest arguments in favour of selective education is that it allows the brightest students to excel.  Potentially Benn has a counter-argument to this, but by not addressing the issue she makes it seem that she might not.

This failure to address alternative perspectives is an ongoing flaw in the book.  While the problems with free schools and academies are addressed in detail, Benn barely pauses to speculate why there is a perceived need for these new types of school.  She seems to suggest the only reason comprehensive education has not taken hold in this country is right-wing bias and the ongoing presence of private and grammar alternatives.  Given her own introduction shows she is aware of the passion of her opponents, such an approach is frustratingly incomplete.

Another problem Benn encounters is, in her enthusiasm to attack alternatives to the comprehensive system, she often overlooks dramatic inconsistencies in her argument.  One particularly glaring example is the rather spurious objection to the new types of school by saying they drive up the length of journeys to school, causing environment problems and ‘exhausting drives across cities and towns’.  Just pages later she puts forward a system based on area-wide admissions lotteries – causing precisely the same problems.

Other examples are more fundamental. Benn wants all schools to be at the same standard and presents the current turbulence in the system as a ‘laboratory experiment’. However she also wants individual teachers to have the power to formulate the curriculum, with reduced testing that might ensure standards remain even nationwide.  Obviously these are difficult issues to solve, but Benn fails to address these contradictions.

Ultimately it seems Benn has missed an opportunity by producing a work that will please those who already agree with her, while failing to address the concerns of her opponents.  The book is well worth reading if you’re interested in the education system, but to win her ‘school war’ it is Telegraph readers who would need to be won over.  That seems unlikely.


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