In this week’s New Statesman, Melissa Benn returns to consider Lynne Reid Bank’s classic novel, The L Shaped Room, fifty years after it was first published.
Excellent piece by Simon Jenkins this morning on the many many wrong turnings of governments and politicians on education, localism, fairness etc over the years. There is now a real opportunity for the new Labour leader, if he or she is brave enough, to suggest something quite radical and rational on the schools front. It would not only be the right thing to do, it would be massively popular.
And another excellent piece on unchristian practices in successful faith schools…….
Great piece in today’s Guardian about exactly what’s wrong with the government’s education agenda. It is in fact part of a speech by Huntingdon headmaster Peter Downes, in favour of his anti free school motion that was carried overwhelmingly at yesterday’s Lib Dem conference. The argument is put with utter lucidity; hence its inclusion in my ongoing series……
The academies bill was rushed through parliament in July with a speed and urgency normally reserved for anti-terrorist legislation. In spite of that, the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords managed to bring about some helpful amendments and they deserve our thanks for that.
However, the substance of the act we now have on the statute book is potentially a very significant threat to the stability, fairness and viability of our educational system.
Before the election, Michael Gove was quite explicit: “My aim is to transform state education in this country irreversibly for the better.”
However laudable the intentions, I think it is hasty and misguided to promulgate an irreversible reform of education within 11 weeks of coming into power.
In any case, Gove’s educational vision is based on a number of fallacies. I want to concentrate on just five.
First, he is very keen to liberate schools from “local authority control”. Local authorities do not “control” schools. They used to. When I first became a secondary school head in 1975, the LA told me how many teachers I could employ and how many administrative staff. They organised the cleaning and the grounds maintenance. But the educational world has changed. LAs today do not control schools. It is the head and governors who make the vast majority of the decisions as to how the school functions. The LA is there to provide a whole range of services and support, including: curriculum advice and challenge;
coordination of admissions; and the cost-effective provision of enough school places for children coming through the system.
Clearly some LAs perform these functions more effectively than others but there is no justification for dismantling a structure that has an essential and invaluable role.
The greatest interference in schools today comes not from local authorities but from central government: a highly prescriptive national curriculum and shelf-loads of guidance; an oppressive inspection regime; an obsession with targets and putting schools into categories; and a never-ending stream of education acts and hundreds of regulations.
Gove’s accusatory finger of excessive control should be pointed at central not local government.
The second fallacy is that there needs to be a massive upheaval in the school system because of parental dissatisfaction with schools as they currently function. This is simply not true. The latest DCSF survey of parental views on the schools their children attend shows that 94% of parents are extremely satisfied, very satisfied or fairly satisfied with the school their children attend. A very small minority have serious reservations. These need to be addressed, but there is no widespread demand for schools to be revolutionised.
An Ipsos/Mori poll recently reported that 96% of parents want their children to go to a good local schools within the local authority family.
There is no popular support for a root and branch reform on the scale envisaged by the academies act.
But we do need to reduce the performance gap between the highest and the lowest achievers and so we all welcome the pupil premium as one way of tackling this.
Fallacy number three is that changing the structure of the school system raises standards. The idea is that you call schools by another name and re-organise them and standards will somehow rise. The academic research on pupil performance gives a different finding. Dylan Wiliam, from the London Institute of Education, says it’s not the school you’re in that matters, it’s the classroom. So our national efforts should be focused on improving teaching and learning rather than on an expensive and distracting administrative re-structuring.
Fallacy four is the idea that academies and free schools are part of the localism agenda. Nothing could be further from the truth. I quote from the DfE website: “The Young People’s Learning Agency will fund, monitor, regulate and handle complaints about academies.” This isn’t localism – it is a massive centralisation of our school system. Incidentally, this concern is shared by many Conservative councillors too.
The most dangerous fallacy of all is the idea that the principles of the market place can be applied to state-funded education. “Good” schools are expected to expand; “free schools” will provide competition so that under-performing or failing schools will have to improve their performance or wither and die.
Just as the supermarket drives the corner shop out of business, so it will be with schools.
When Sainsbury’s provides some new products to lure people away from their competitors, the unsold items in the failing shops can be returned to the wholesaler or sold off in a sale. But not so in schools. Pupils are human beings, not tins of beans.
My purpose in proposing this motion was to give Liberal Democrats the chance to make a clear and unequivocal statement – academies and free schools are incompatible with the basic principles of Liberal Democrat education policy.
I know that coalition isn’t easy. My younger son lives in Brussels and if you think coalition is difficult in Britain, you want to try Belgium.
I am not seeking to rock the coalition boat. I understand, as we all do, why the coalition had to be formed. We accept that; we trust Nick Clegg, Vince Cable and their colleagues to do the best they can to uphold Lib Dem principles in difficult and unforeseen circumstances. We rejoice in what they have been able to do to implement parts of our manifesto.
But being in coalition should not require us to abandon the basic values, principles and policies that our experience, knowledge and collective wisdom, have formulated over many years.
I am calling on Liberal Democrats to use their influence at local level. I am not asking for hysterical, placard-waving boycotts – just sensible, rational argument to alert people to the risks I have listed.
They don’t want us to campaign, however unflamboyantly, on an element of the coalition agreement, our new Bible.
The good news is that the coalition agreement makes absolutely no mention of converting existing schools to academies and the paragraphs on “new providers” does not specify that these will be outside strategic local authority oversight.
So the Academies Act is not a true reflection of the coalition agreement and therefore we must surely be free to point out its limitations and potential dangers.
Our message to our members, supporters and the wider public is simply this: Liberal Democrats believe in good local schools for all, supported and coordinated by democratically elected local bodies; we believe in fairness and our priority is to support those in greatest need.
Go back to the places where decisions are being made in the next few days, weeks and months. Talk to heads, governors, parents, teachers and councillors and help then to understand what is really happening. Explain to them calmly, cogently and persuasively, that academies and free schools are likely to be divisive, costly and unfair. They’re in the statute book, on the shelf, and that’s where they should stay.
On a recent discussion on pensions and retirement, Newsnight chose, rather ingeniously, to flag up the age of every speaker in brackets after their name. A joke? A way of putting content in context? Both, perhaps.
It certainly made me think, if I am ever involved in an education discussion on that same programme, I will suggest that they put the name of the school each participant send/sent their child/children to after their name. No, not the name of the school they went to, interesting as that is. But their choice of school as a parent, a better indicator of their preferences/values etc. Yes, of course, I see the complications; children switch schools; siblings go to different schools etc
Let’s say we could reduce that technical difficulty, reduce the description of choice to essences, I doubt that the programme makers or some others taking part on the programme would agree to it, for a whole host of reasons.
However, I still think it would be worth doing and including the presenters. School choice is interesting. It’s also rather revealing. If the Main Presenter starts laying into a head teacher, say, about the poor performance of urban state schools and yet we see after his/her name ( Cheltenham Ladies College) just to use a random and most unlikely example….is that not a useful, qualifying fact for us to throw into the equation; one that might provoke a momentary ‘ hang on a minute, what’s going on here..’ kind of response? Similarly, if a leading liberal commentator advocates comprehensive education for the nation’s children but we see they sent their own children to a fee paying school…. and so on.
I’ll let my loyal blog readers know if anything comes of this idea….
Read Melissa Benn’s latest piece in Public Finance magazine on the looming protests against Coalition policies.
Michael Gove says his education policies will help Britain’s poorest pupils, but will they just compound the social divide? Read Melissa Benn’s latest feature in this week’s New Statesman.
Below, a piece I wrote about eighteen months ago, for an ongoing series on normblog and which I never put up on my own site.
So here it is:
It is not always easy to write about a favourite book or even to understand why some works are so much more meaningful to us than others. But with Jennie Gerhardt, Theodore Dreiser’s second and intensely tragic novel, I am acutely aware of how much of the book’s power is, for me, tied to memories of the last days in the life of my mother, Caroline Benn, proud American, socialist, scholar, lover of 19th-century novels and a great admirer of Dreiser.
In the autumn of 2000, when she was dying of cancer, slowly and painfully but with tremendous humour and bravery too, my mother and I talked with the intensity of those who know time is fast running out. It may even have been her who urged me to read Jennie Gerhardt. I had seen her taking notes on the novel, part of her research for her sadly unfinished final project, to write a history of socialists and the socialist movement in America. Jennie Gerhardt is largely set in Ohio, her dearly loved home state to which she returned for a long visit every year.
Analytical to the last, my mother saw Dreiser’s novel largely as a forensic dissection of a particular moment in American capitalism while I admitted to bouts of uncontained weeping at the cruelty of the story’s conclusion, the human tragedy of Jennie herself.
It’s obvious to me now, and as it was to her then, that my profound sadness was intimately connected to her terminal illness and – a slightly different thing, this – our shared knowledge of her imminent death. Dreiser writes powerfully of the simple tragedy of mortality itself – rich or poor, his characters expire acutely aware of their existential isolation – but he also touches directly on the poignant truth that, however vulnerable a mother may be, she is always, if a good mother, in some way more protective of her child than of herself.
In one of the saddest parts of the book Jennie Gerhardt is forced to hide the fact of her illegitimate daughter Vesta’s existence from her rich lover, a decision she comes bitterly to regret and so revoke, only later on to lose Vesta to a childhood illness just at the moment she needs her most. As the mother of two very young girls, facing the impending death of my own mother, this was just all too painful to contemplate, even in fiction.
But sorry, let me do my job, and tell you the story, should you be interested in picking up this book.
Set in Ohio in 1880, Jennie Gerhardt tells the story of a lovely innocent young woman, the eldest daughter of a narrow-minded but proud, disabled and therefore unemployed German immigrant, who is forced to seek work to keep the family in food and warmth.
In the course of the novel she finds love not once, but twice, both times with powerful older men; first, a lonely but tender-hearted Senator, whom she meets when she works as a cleaner in a large hotel, but who dies suddenly leaving Jennie pregnant and a social outlaw.
Later on, she becomes the lover of the impatient but magnetic Lester Kane, scion of a railway-owning family, who sets up house with her, but is eventually forced, through financial and moral pressure, to abandon Jennie and marry a much more suitable and cultured woman, even though he loves Jennie to his dying moments.
The rise and fall of a beautiful but ultimately powerless woman is a common narrative arc in much great American fiction from Henry James’s Daisy Miller to Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth. Jennie is a personality of rare goodness and innocence, who stoically accepts her unjust fate. She feels no bitterness, even when, by the end, she is abandoned, through death or desertion, by everyone she truly loves.
Dreiser’s genius lies not just in his raw narrative urgency, but in his ability to show how love and money are always entwined, how our fate is determined less by character than by the deepest-rooted structures and often unspoken rules of society.
Jennie may possibly be a little too good to be true but even those characters who are found wanting are so fully drawn, so wonderfully alive, in both good and bad aspects, that we completely understand why they do what they do.
As Dreiser shows us, without irony, rich men have to keep making money to keep being rich; they must surely have suitably charming and attractive wives. And even clever, independently wealthy women, like Letty Pace, the woman Lester Kane eventually marries, have to lure a suitable mate, with all due sympathy, intellect and charm, in order to sustain their worldly position – even if, as in this case, it leads directly to the effective ‘elimination’ of another woman with less social power.
Dreiser, who went from rags to riches himself, not once, but twice in his lifetime, has the rare gift of writing convincingly about both wealth and poverty. He can convey the urgency of the poor man’s search for work, the child scrabbling for coal, a care-worn mother’s helpless anxiety.
But he writes equally evocatively about the exciting sparkle and deep velvety comfort of wealth, its allure and power, and ultimately its emptiness. Jennie’s ambitious elder brother, Bass, longs to move with a smart crowd.
Clothes were the main touchstone. If men wore nice clothes and had rings and pins, whatever they did seemed appropriate. He wanted to be like them and to act like them, and so his experience of the more pointless forms of life rapidly broadened.
Re-reading Jennie Gerhardt this last week, I got as much pleasure from phrases such as these, with their searchlight power to reveal hidden recesses of human motivation – surely one of the great moral pleasures of fiction – as I did from the powerful story line and its tragic ending.
Yes, I was still touched and deeply upset by the fate of this kind, unlucky, always loving and almost unbelievably stoical young woman from Ohio. But this time I found myself doing something else: feverishly marking, on a bus journey or curled up in a chair at two in the morning, particularly prescient observations. ‘Clothes were the main touchstone…’ ‘The more pointless forms of life’. I was saying to myself, constantly: Ah yes! And so in Dreiser’s company I continue to feel just that little bit less alone in the world: one mark of a great writer.