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In this week’s Big Issue North (1117) writer and activist Melissa Benn explains that despite never setting out to follow in the footsteps of her parents – Caroline and Tony – she’s found herself in the midst of the familiar. Here she speaks about her latest book, written with Janet Downs, The Truth About Our Schools: Exposing the Myths, Exploring the Evidence (Routledge, £14.99).

You point out that all parties, bar Ukip, believe in comprehensive education but is the Tory belief in comps redundant given their persecution of the poor?
That’s an interesting question. There’s all kinds of different Tories. There are the Tories that just want a stratified system, as there was post-war, and they want better schools for the better-off so that fits in with that agenda. But then there’s the Govian agenda that wants comprehensive schools, but often they’re slightly militarised and they have a “drill and kill” emphasis. It’s what I would call untrusting comprehensive education, so it’s control of the poor. Then, you might find in local areas Tories who have a more enlightened view of comprehensive education – we have to be fair-minded – and more progressive, but one doesn’t hear much from them.

Does central government use local authorities as a scapegoat?
Without doubt. It’s one of the saddest things in our civic society of the last 20 years. It began with Thatcherism. She dismantled metropolitan authorities, she got rid of the  Greater London Council, because they were democratically successful experiments, particularly under Ken Livingstone, and we’ve just seen local authorities undermined, distrusted, under resourced, ever since. I haven’t done an audit of it recently but it’s pretty clear that this is still going on and funding is cut and powers are cut. Then of course there’s another side, which is George Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse. There’s two views on this. I went to Manchester recently to speak in a debate and there are a lot of people who are very powerful in Manchester who want that – they want control over their own budget. There’s another group, probably more of a Corbynista view, that it’s a way of passing on a lack of funding to local areas and I’m sure there’s something in that – that it’s to yet again offload responsibility for cuts to local areas and that’s depressing and cynical.

Are academies an attempt to control schools under the guise of autonomy?
Over half our secondaries are academies. There has been such vast and speedy acadamisation and I think the government would like to acadamise all schools – they’ve been battling to academise primary schools. Firstly it’s about trying to get rid of democratic control of schools – a shift away from a democratic framework into a semi-privatised framework. It hasn’t gone as far as privatising schools. A lot of people thought that was Gove’s plan but it hasn’t happened yet. But it’s put them in this no person’s land where they’re not separate institutions run independently like private companies but they’re not part of and accountable to their communities. Of course ironically the other side of these years of market-led reforms is increasing government control. The government can never really let go of education – they’ve just shifted it from the local to the central and so you have very tight control from Westminster. Governments are always telling schools what to do. They just didn’t think that local authorities could be trusted to run them.

The book illustrates that choice in education can be damaging when there’s a business agenda but are there good examples of progressive schooling that doesn’t prescribe to performance targets?
I’ve always had a sneaking fondness for the original free schools, in my book School Wars I talk about that – those schools that were just completely free from targets and just completely free full stop – and I think there should be more autonomy for schools and teachers without doubt but I also think we need to separate our schools from a business, or economy, or employment driven agenda. I think a society should have an idea of what a good education is, have a broad outline, and let schools and teachers get on with it. We’ve gone the other way – we have a narrow view of what education is and we control our teachers and we don’t even educate them. Gove got rid of the idea you needed qualified teachers and they’ve changed teacher education so now its all about people who went to “good universities” having a few weeks training and then going straight into the classroom.

Given that free schools were marketed as parent-led, and that parents with entrenched social problems are unlikely to engage with them, are they a way of creating social segregation outside of the grammar school model?
On the parental element, when Gove and Cameron first talked about free schools they represented them as a model that would enrich local engagement in education. I don’t think it’s worked out like that. They said parents and teachers would come together and it would be an inspiring and innovative model. In fact the only parents who’ve been able to create schools are advantaged parents so you have the famous example of Toby Young in west London, with lots of contacts in the media, able to write articles on every aspect of his project. Or in a way less objectionable characters – I did a debate in Hackney with a group of parents who wanted to have a school based around music – really decent people but very well connected and socially knowledgeable. Other groups have tended to be religious groups or charities. But as the free schools have developed they’ve ended up being taken up by existing educational bodies so they’re not really much to do with the original vision any more. I think it’s too crude to say they were designed to socially segregate but my experience is that they tend to because they have freer admissions. In effect they take in a much more advantaged peer group and if you’ve got, as you do where I live, a local school that’s always struggled with grammar schools and faith schools and private schools, and along comes a free school, it can further create segregation and the risk of a possible sink school locally. I think education needs to be planned – I don’t mean over controlled, but you need a measure of planning so that the better off can’t manoeuvre for themselves better-off provisions.

Why are high numbers of teachers leaving the profession?
Overloaded, over controlled, lack of autonomy in the classroom, really long hours and yet not given the respect and pay of a professional. If you look at somewhere like Finland it’s a highly respected profession – it’s not particularly well paid, but its very competitive, in a good sense. And then when you get in there there’s a sense that you’re considered very valuable to society and you’re very respected. I think we’ve just made such a mess of this. To me teachers should be on a par with doctors and dentists and lawyers and architects – it is perhaps the most crucial job in society and yet we have this was of infantilising teachers. We treat them as one up from the children that they teach. This is slight speculation but it seems to me that in recent years it’s only been heads that have got that respect and even now I wonder if heads are being infantilised and being over-controlled and I think we’ve got this completely wrong.

In a competitive job market will newly qualified teachers be willing to accept less?
Economic necessity leads people to do things they don’t want to do. This will make them unhappy in their work and being unhappy in their work is not good for those that they work with and all of that is common sense.

You’ve praised state schools in Blackburn and Rochdale for their “slow education” approach. Can this really work within such an exam-focused comprehensive model?
Neither school had stellar results but they just happened to have very determined leaders who have created a completely different culture because they believe in it. They’re both in poorer areas and they don’t have a lot of impatient pushy parents insisting on A*s along the way, which has probably given them a bit of freedom, but the argument of the primary school in particular was their slow education model was improving results. You do find examples like this in the state system – there’s a school in Hertfordshire, Wroxham School, and they operate learning without limits, in which they refused to recognise levels for primary schools. They emphasised curiosity, they refused to recognise or set by ability, and they were outstanding by conventional methods. It’s one of the more exciting and encouraging developments in the state system.

How can parents engage and campaign for their local comprehensive?
I have come to re-realise that anybody can have a real impact. It will always depend on your situation but three or four people coming together about something they’re not happy about and saying “We’re not going to put up with this” can make a difference. Or coming together in support of a local school, which you see being undermined and which you want to help flourish. Give yourselves a name, put out a press release. The media has developed with social media; there’s so many outlets now – use it! Use it to make the argument and remember that politicians are much more sensitive to public opinion than we think they are. Just keep putting pressure on politicians and local and national opinion formers. I do think citizens have power and should use it.

Antonia Charlesworth

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