Interview: Melissa Benn
By Ben Moore
Journalist and author Melissa Benn speaks to Ben Moore about our education system, the student protests and how far the feminist movement has come since her time at university. Benn is the author of School Wars, a book exploring the inequalities of our current system, the emergence of free schools and the growth of the private sector in education
Ben Moore: For the oblivious reader, could you explain what free schools are?
Melissa Benn: Free schools are schools which are funded by government and therefore paid for by the taxpayers, but are nothing to do with local authorities. In a way, they are ‘independent’ state schools.
BM: What are your criticisms of such schools?
MB: My worry about them is the government has set them up, given them a lot of money to get going and also offers political support, on the grounds they will improve the system. The fear is that they won’t tackle the problem of inequality and provide a better education for poorer students, the key problem at the heart of our school system. There was research done looking at the first 23 of 24 free schools and they found that they took a lower percent of kids on free school meals than the other state schools in the area. So there is already a worry that free schools might be serving the better off.
BM: In essence, you’re saying it perpetuates the educational inequality?
MB: Well at this rate, free schools certainly won’t eradicate it, no. The coalition says its whole concern is to improve the education of poorer children but my suspicion is that they will not.
BM: Do you think it is just misguided policy [from the coalition] or are their vested interests?
MB: I think there are a lot of vested interests in education and that’s one of the problems of our education system. The private and grammar schools both have a very powerful voice. Is it deliberate? Erm, I think that Michael Gove and those at the top care about academically talented poorer students who are being left behind. I don’t think they have a plan for all children really. I think they are obsessed with the narrative of the poor, talented kid who excels academically and goes on to Oxbridge- Gove himself was adopted and then got a scholarship to a private school before attending Oxford. So a lot of their focus is on the narrative of poor kid who ‘makes it up’.
BM: What policies would you advocate to limit the educational inequalities we face?
MB: We have to focus on the whole system. International evidence, from the OECD, is very clear. It says that the best and fairest systems provided a good comprehensive system from mid to late adolescence and said even not to stream children, let alone divide by social class. In an unequal society, we have to have good state schools. If we leave it to ‘choice’, you’re just going to get the same mistakes creating the same problems.
BM: In terms of choice, do you have a problems with public schools? In terms of division and favouring the elite? Or do you feel that as long as there are good state schools, should be able to choose private education?
MB: I don’t think you can take away the right to private education- I think you just get into a legal minefield there. We need to talk about what they mean for our societies. They clearly perpetuate the inequality. It’s inequality masked in the rhetoric of ‘freedom’, whereas in reality it’s just about buying something superior.
BM: Moving on to Higher Education, what are your opinions on the Student Fee rises?
MB: Well they really concern me. There’s no question that psychologically, the new sums are a huge barrier. The figures this year show there’s been a drop in people applying overall. Yet again, it’s less of a worry for those with money than without money. For those who pay 12k or more a year for private education, it’s just a continuation of their financial burden. It also concerns me that the new market in higher education means we are losing a sense of education as a public good.
BM: What advice can you give to students to combat these rises? I know a lot of young people feel relatively helpless.
MB: Don’t give up, don’t lose hope. Protest, do it with wit and relevant statistics. In the end, history shows that pressure from the bottom affects people at the top. You feel at the time it doesn’t, but it is shaping the landscape. As long as you keep within the purview of the law, keep up the pressure.
BM: Faith schools are becoming increasingly controversial. Do you encourage state funding for faith schools?
MB: Well, I’ve always had worries about faith schools. I have two worries. One, they divide people by background. Where we live [inner city London] there are two local Islamic schools. Those children will never come into contact with the kids that go to the local primaries. That is a real shame and in this time, with global tensions such as they are, this is a real worry. Another worry is that some faith schools, like some Christian faith schools, have used admissions on the basis of faith to get a more ‘favourable’ intake, let’s say.
BM: We have several reclaim the night events in Manchester and a strong feminist movement. How far has the feminist movement come since your time at University?
MB: I think if you look at detail of it, feminism has made a huge impact on all of our lives- on everything from employment to social life. But I don’t think we’ve come as far as we think we have. There are still problems with violence; with safety; with representation- about 20% of the world’s parliamentarians (and 22% in the UK) are female. I think these austerity measures are hitting women hardest- they’re exacerbating the gap between the better well off women and the worst and also pushing back women in general. Poverty has always been a women’s problem. I’d say to the relatively privileged, university female- fight for the female who is not at University and who does not have your voice.