Routledge Education is delighted to announce that Melissa Benn and Janet Downs, authors of The Truth About Our Schools, are our November 2015 Authors of the Month.
Melissa Benn is a journalist and author, a campaigner for high-quality comprehensive education and a founder of the Local Schools Network. Janet Downs is a retired secondary school teacher. She is now an education researcher and blogs regularly on the Local Schools Network.
Their much anticipated new book, The Truth About Our Schools, is published by Routledge this month.
Melissa Benn is a writer and campaigner. She was educated at Holland Park and the LSE where she graduated with a first in history. Benn’s articles and essays have appeared in many newspapers and magazines including the Guardian, Independent, Times, Marxism Today,Daily Mirror, Daily Record,London Review of Books, Cosmopolitan, Public Finance and the New Statesman.
Benn has written several books, including two novels: Public Lives (1995) and One of Us (2008) which was shortlisted for a British Book Award. Her most recently published book is What Should We Tell Our Daughters? The Pleasures and Pressures of Growing Up Female ( 2013).
Her publications on education include Education and Democracy, co-edited with Clyde Chitty (2004): A Comprehensive Future: Quality and Equality For All Our Children, co-written with Fiona Millar (2006):and the much discussed School Wars: The Battle for Britain’s Education published in 2011.
In late 2010, Benn co-founded the Local Schools Network, a web based campaign in defence and celebration of local schools. A regular speaker and broadcaster, Benn is currently Chair of Comprehensive Future, a parliamentary based campaign group set up to ensure fair admissions to all schools.
Janet Downs is a retired teacher with twenty years’ experience of teaching in a non-selective secondary school in a selective county. Her experience of working with children rejected by the 11+ instilled a belief that children should not be segregated at such a young age to be educated separately according to the results of two short tests taken at age ten.
After retiring Downs took time out from educating others to carry on educating herself. She took an Open University ‘open’ degree and graduated with Honours. But in December 2010 she read a newspaper article saying the UK had ‘plummeted’ down international education league tables in a decade. She decided to investigate and found it was based on a lie. The organisation behind the tables, the OECD, had said the UK figures for the year 2000 were flawed and should not be used for comparison. Worse, she found the lie was being promoted in a Department for Education press release.
It was time for Downs to come out of retirement and begin campaigning against misrepresentation and distortion about UK schools, particularly those in England. She began writing for the Local Schools Network.
Opinions about comprehensive education are often made into easy-to-swallow sound-bites by media and politicians alike and whilst the benefits of a genuinely comprehensive education for all pupils are obvious, untruths have unwittingly evolved into hard facts. Based on Melissa Benn and Janet Downs’ work as part of the pioneering Local Schools Network, The Truth About Our Schools calls for us to urgently and articulately challenge unquestioned myths about state education. Benn and Downs have meticulously built an argument for its still enormously vital role, and rigorously challenge assumptions that:
Anyone who thinks that comprehensive education cannot deliver, that local authorities are the chief block to improving our school system, that competition and markets are the route to educational success and that private schools hold the magic DNA that can simply be transferred to other state schools will have their beliefs shaken by this blisteringly incisive book.
What motivated you to write The Truth About Our Schools?
Melissa: I felt that several myths about schools were being constantly and yet casually repeated in the media or in public debates. it simply seemed sensible to draw as many of them together as possible and offer explicit, and evidence based, rebuttal.
Janet: Many myths have grown up around education and these have been promoted aggressively by politicians and much of the UK media. They have been repeated so many times they have become ‘truth’. It was to counteract the most prevalent myths that we decided to write this book.
But the book needed to be more than opinionated polemic. It needed to be grounded in evidence. Each myth needed to be rebuffed by reliable research, data and corroboration. It was also important that the demolition of the myths needed to be a group task not just by the two named authors but by colleagues from the Local Schools Network. Not one voice, but many.
In The Truth About Our Schools you challenge eight unquestioned myths about state education. Which myth frustrates you the most, and why?
Melissa: The laziest myth is, without doubt, ‘Local authorities control schools.’ They clearly don’t, and haven’t for a long time: full stop.
But the myth that probably most frustrates me most, in part because it involves more complex thinking, is ‘Comprehensive Education Has Failed.’ Again, this is an often lazily repeated assertion in many parts of our mainstream political culture, but it really doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. It is clear that non-selective schools and systems can be excellent: look at Finland, one of the top performing education systems in the world. It is also clear that dividing children up at 11 is of marginal benefit to those who go to them but depresses the educational and life chances of the majority who do not. For that reason, one of the most interesting developments over the last couple of decades has been the recognition among many on the centre and right that comprehensive education can work extremely well, if well resourced and well supported.
The problem with England is that we remain divided about whether we really support comprehensive education or whether, even now, we still want to divide children - starkly, through the return of a grammar/secondary modern type divide or more subtly through covertly unfair admissions policies. If we could only make a clear commitment to comprehensive education and make sure that every school had balanced intakes, was properly resourced, and had first class teachers and heads, we could finally join the 21st century, educationally speaking.
Janet: The myth that most frustrates me is ‘Choice, competition and markets are the route to education success’. It sounds reasonable – allowing popular schools to expand and closing ones which don’t attract their full number. But schools don’t have elastic walls. Expansion is expensive; it is disruptive and potentially kills what made the school popular in the first place. Closing unpopular schools wastes resources. It means children have to be found places elsewhere or be subject to a takeover with the all-too-inevitable branding: a new mission statement, restyled uniform and pompous motto.
Competition between schools cuts off collaboration and the sharing of good practice. Competition encourages schools to deter applications from pupils deemed not desirable for the school’s image. Competition diverts money from education to marketing.
Market forces may work for businesses. But schools are not businesses. They are essential services providing a human right: universal education. When market forces are introduced into education, equity goes out of the window.
What's the one thing you hope readers take away from your book?
Melissa: A more nuanced, complex and truthful picture of the problems and possibilities of our current education system.
What inspired you to get into the Education field?
Melissa: I am a true autodidact. I love finding out new things, am a passionate reader and believe that one’s education really begins once one has left school. School is a place therefore where one should, at least, learn how to love learning. I have always been interested in the idea of a fairer and higher quality system, partly as a result of being lucky enough to go to one of the country’s pioneer comprehensives, Holland Park. It was a fantastic school where I got an arts rich education and had the most amazing teachers. However, I became really fired up about school organisation and structures after I became a parent myself and saw the many underhand ways in which our education system remains deeply unfair, as the mantra of ‘parental choice’ clearly benefits the better off. This made me really angry!
What excites and/or frustrates you most about the direction education in this country is taking?
Melissa: I am frustrated by government policy which claims to be improving our school system but is narrowing the curriculum and overloading our teachers, and I do get fed up with being told that the private sector has all the answers. No, they don’t: they have more money, and they educate those from better off backgrounds. Most state schools have to deal with the many and varied problems of our society, particularly growing inequality. What excites me are the many ideas being developed by teachers themselves for a richer, more interesting curriculum and more challenging and relevant qualifications. I wish teachers had more autonomy in the system, and more opportunities for in-depth training and continuous professional development.
Janet: Education in England constricts schools rather than offer them autonomy as is claimed. More control has been taken by the centre: the Department for Education is responsible for the oversight of thousands of academies. At the same time politicians interfere in curriculum, exams, even ways of teaching. Multi-academy Trusts impose far more control on their schools that the much-maligned local authorities ever did. I fear the move from local authority stewardship will steer schools into the arms of for-profit education providers. One of the most chilling things I heard during my research was Michael Gove saying before he became Education Secretary that he would let groups like Serco run schools.
The exciting thing is that teachers such as the Headteachers’ Roundtable and the unions are offering genuine alternatives to Government policies. It is time the professional voice was heard and not the loud, clamorous tones of ministers pressing their whims onto England’s educational system.
What one message would you like those setting education policy to hear and understand?
Melissa: Trust the professionals.
Janet: Government’s role in education is to provide stability and sufficient resources. It is not to impose prejudices on to teachers already punch drunk from a blizzard of initiatives.
"A superb, crucial, blistering expose of all the myths about our education system that are all too often used to attack it. Melissa Benn again proves why she is one of country's most formidable education campaigners - and why the powerful should fear her." - Owen Jones, Guardian columnist and best-selling author
"Never has it been more urgent to publicise the truth about what works and doesn't work in our education system. Debunking the ideology of marketisation, and exposing the half-truths that pass for objective reporting, Benn and Downs meticulously lay out the evidence: that a national system of comprehensive schools delivers the best outcomes. This hugely important book should be required reading for each new Education Secretary." - Caroline Lucas, MP
October Authors of the Month: John Hattie, Deb Masters and Kate Birch
September Author of the Month: Trisha Lee
August Author of the Month: Alison Wilcox
July Author of the Month: Diane Montgomery
June Author of the Month: Janet Evans
May Author of the Month: John Foster
April Author of the Month: Mel Ainscow