Book review: School Wars

If you have children, and you have not read a history of the British education system, then this book is already worth reading. It is far from perfectly organised, and it fails to make some — to me — obvious and powerful points about education policy. Indeed the book might have been better as a more closely focused pamphlet of 120 pages rather than the 200 pages that it is. But overall, School Wars contains enough good information to leave you grinding your teeth at the weakness and hypocrisy of British politicians in all three major parties. It has proven, in Britain, easier to have a rational debate about homosexuality than about education.

Why? The proximate reason is that the British establishment is still overwhelmingly educated in elitist schools which refuse to accept poor or more difficult to teach children. The apex of this system is the roughly 7 percent of children who go to private schools and the 5 percent who go to grammars. But if you count in other church and non-church state schools which cherry-pick their intake, there is probably one-fifth or more of families and kids which undertake their education on the unspoken basis that it is reasonable to leave everyone else to fend for themselves.

In a country like Italy, the elite plunders the state directly. In Britain, the approach to making sure the establishment gets more than its share is far more subtle. Indeed one can only admire the refinement of the hypocrisy. Instead of grabbing what you want directly, you give yourselves an unassailable advantage by creating selective schools for those with more money, more accumulated learning and better social networks and then ‘compete’ with people who have had to undertake their education in the real, everyday world of mixed incomes and abilities.

School Wars fails to make the most important point about this system — that those who support it are anti-competitive. The British education system exists to prevent children having equal educational opportunity and therefore from competing on an equal basis. It is a myth that the rich and powerful like competition — it is a threat to their status. What they like is competition according to rules they set, just what the British education system offers.

Another thing School Wars fails to address is the false fear that most people have about a nationalised education system, where each school would educate a fair cross-section of the population. Such an arrangement would create a more genuine free market, but it would never mean that the monied classes could not bring their money to bear on their children’s advancement. Such support would simply have to occur outside school, as is the case in Scandinavian countries, continental European ones, north-east Asian ones, or Canada, which have non-selective school systems and post higher average educational scores than Britain.  Money still counts in those countries. However you cannot move your child to some ‘gated’ educational community free of the poor.

It may seem there is a lot missing from Melissa Benn’s book. In fact, there is a lot in it. She is good at showing how real improvement in Britain’s education system cannot come from piecemeal change. Britain needs a simple, straightforward commitment to education as a public good. Everything else leads back, through any number of byways, to manipulation of the system by more powerful interests against less powerful interests. The loser is the  aggregate quality of education. As constructed today the British school system is really an experiment to prove the existence of middle class selfishness. We knew that existed already.

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2 Responses to “Book review: School Wars”

  1. Matthew Robertson Says:

    Joe, what would be wrong with rich people wanting to pay for a better education for their children? What if they want to send their children to a school that has more qualified and higher-paid teachers, and only pupils whose parents also have enough money to pay for that? It’s unclear in your post why that is an illegitimate pursuit.

    • joestudwell Says:

      Education works best as a public good because when people take their kids out of the public system they don’t simply, on average, give their own children a better education, they guarantee a worse one for everyone else. Public (state) schools need those children from more stable, more affluent, more politically active families to stay in the system in order to be able to perform optimally.
      The penultimate paragraph of what I wrote stresses that wealthy families (and many families that opt out of state education are not hugely wealthy) never — and should never — lose the right to use their money to their children’s advantage. In countries with non-selective education systems they send their kids off for extra-school tutoring or overseas foreign language training that other families cannot afford. However, as I said, this takes place outside of the core school framework.

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