Why there's never been equality in the English school system -- Melissa Benn's speech at the Goldsmiths conference

Francis Gilbert's picture
I filmed Melissa speaking at the Goldsmiths College Teaching and Learning Conference, Future Tense, last week and have just posted the video on YouTube. Posting it now is particularly timely because it lays to rest the myth that private and grammar schools increase social mobility when, as Melissa points out, they do the opposite. Her talk is wide-ranging, looking at the history of English education since 1945.

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Tabbers's picture
Sun, 27/05/2012 - 20:24

What is her definition of equality?
She admits that Grammar Schools did help pupils form poor backgrounds reach the top of British society, but dismisses them as "a tiny elite" - citing no evidence to support this, nor counter examples of how the comprehensive-educated pupils have followed them are reaching the top of British society in greater proportions. Probably becuase there isn't any.
She admits that the 1944 act did NOT stigmatise those who went to secondary moderns; her and her ilk do that very well.
Who said that those not selected at the 11+ were failures?
Nobody needs to bring back the secondary moderns - they never went away; they are the sink comprehensives that proliferate in our inner cities. Nowadays the bright pupils therein have no escape route, unlike the wealthy Ms Benn and her ilk who can move to leafy suburbs.
Middle class parents who thought their offspring would be cheated out of a grammar school education by their poorer lower class neighbour wanted grammar school s phased out.
So, Melissa, the Question Time audience were ALL wrong, and you and your friends are right and can impose your will on them?

Tim Bidie's picture
Mon, 28/05/2012 - 05:41

I'm afraid I stopped listening as soon as it became obvious that the talk was a polemic rather than a balanced attempt to address a complex situation where limited available evidence seems counter intuitive.

Exactly 3 minutes and six seconds into the talk, the speaker tells her audience that Pasi Sahlberg, at an earlier talk, had said that Finland closed down all its private schools right at the beginning of its successful process of reform.

In fact what he said was that Finland, faced with a crisis where many highly intelligent students were abandoned by the state system at age 15, 'built a consensus when faced with necessity.'

This consensus involved merging most private schools with the state system. It also involved allowing 75 of them, at their request, to keep their identity, as they had since the 19th century and still do, simply changing their funding system from private to state.

He added that, consequently,'this question of private schools is kind of irrelevant.'

So, there you have it: a consensual merging of state and private educational sectors within what has become one of the world's most celebrated educational systems but here, in Britain, shouty calls for the closure of private schools by state diktat within an educational sector that is performing adequately but failing the most disadvantaged.

Quite how closing down some of the worlds most famous educational establishments, producing a first class education whilst making no claim on scarce state funding, is supposed to assist the most disadvantaged is not made clear.

Melissa Benn's picture
Mon, 28/05/2012 - 06:43

I am amazed you made it as far as 6 minutes!

But for others who did not, I have to correct your inaccurate statements regarding my argument. I do not call for the closing of the private and the selective schools; nor do I do so in School Wars, or any of my writing.

Instead, I suggest - in direct contrast to the Secretary of State and others - that the role of these institutions is an unhelpful one in the creation of a first rate universal system.

And this was indeed the point that Pahsi Sahlberg made in his House of Commons talk.
He was very clear: at some point the state/nation has to recognise that the existence of private and selective schools stands in the way of excellence for all, particularly poorer children and come to a consensual agreement to create a genuinely universal system.
The OECD make a very similar point in their February 2012 document on excellence and equity. They are very matter of fact about 'vested interests' that stand in the way of improving education systems in the interests of the majority.
I know it is a deliberate ploy on the part of those who oppose genuine comprehensive education to suggest that their opponents are quasi Stalinists trying to get rid of good schools - I make that point in the video as well! But it is simply not accurate.

Tim Bidie's picture
Mon, 28/05/2012 - 08:00

And yet, and yet.....the post on this forum that introduced an excerpt from Mr Sahlberg's talk stated: 'Our education system will never promote equality until private schools are abolished. It’s a completely absurdity that these institutions have charitable status when they only have a negative effect upon society, causing social fracture and segregation.'

I'm not too clear exactly what a Stalinist is. Didn't he abolish a thing or two?

But, with profoundly illiberal sentiments and with so much else, as the man said: 'Mr. Justice, you will know it when you see it.'

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 28/05/2012 - 08:57

Tim - you'll need to clarify. Who is the "man" and what is the context of the sentence? And could you explain "profoundly illiberal sentiments" and "so much else".

A "stalinist" in the context of Melissa's post above has "no meaning except in so far as it signifies 'something not desirable'."* It functions in the same way as Mr Gove's "Trots".

You ask a rhetorical question, "Didn't he abolish a thing or two?" In the context of grammar schools, more of them were abolished under Mrs Thatcher than at any other time. This was done because, as Melissa said, thousands of middle-class parents realised that their children were disadvantaged by a system which discriminated against 75% of children and lobbied local authorities to introduce a fully-comprehensive system.

Does it follow, then, that Mrs T was a stalinist?

*Orwell, G, "Politics and the English Language"

Tim Bidie's picture
Mon, 28/05/2012 - 12:00

Here's an example of a profoundly illiberal sentiment, boldly expressed:

'If it's the last thing I do, I'm going to destroy every fcuking grammar school in England. And Wales. And Northern Ireland.'

Anthony Crosland, secretary of state for education, 1965, under Harold Wilson.

Tim Bidie's picture
Tue, 29/05/2012 - 06:20

Alan Novak: A summa cum laude graduate of Yale University as a Navy Scholar, of Yale Law School (3nd in Class), and of Oxford University as a Marshall scholar, Mr. Novak, a member of the N.Y. and D.C. bars, practiced law at Cravath, Swaine & Moore and Swidler, Berlin, Shereff & Friedman, LLC, and taught law at Cardozo Law School. His public service includes three years as an officer in the United State Marine Corps, a U.S. Supreme Court Clerkship with Justice Potter Stewart, Senior Counsel to Senator Ted Kennedy, Senior Executive Assistant to undersecretary of State Eugene Rostow, and Executive Director, President Johnson's Telecommunications Task Force. Appointed by President Carter after service in the Carter White House, Mr. Novak served for five years as Federal Fine Arts Commissioner.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Mon, 28/05/2012 - 12:09

I love all Secretaries of State for Education. They are such intelligent and helpful people :-) !

Tabbers's picture
Mon, 28/05/2012 - 15:08

Grammar schools were supported by many of left-leaning persuasion as they saw the transformative effect they had on the lives of those from the non-aspirational classes.

Unfortunately they were killed off by an unholy alliance of vested interests - those on the right who saw them as a threat to their traditional priveleges and those on the left who saw them as diminishing their natural support base.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Mon, 28/05/2012 - 19:49

Grammer schools had a positive effect on the kids who would otherwise have gone to schools from which they would have had no chance in being socially mobile.

Once we decided not to write off most kids at 11 as a society the picture changed.

Melissa Benn's picture
Mon, 28/05/2012 - 08:37

I define Stalinism as the undemocratic and illiberal use of the powers of the state to impose a set of autocratic arrangements upon society - without seeking consensus. Far from it, as I am sure you are aware, Stalinism was a murderous regime; a completely inappropriate term for discussion of English education.
Can't think of anything less Stalinist, actually, than the reasonable, open voices on LSN, arguing, with determination and courtesy - and over many years - for a different and genuinely fairer vision of our schools.
I can't remember if we have established whetherTim Bidle is - or is not - your real name? And if not, why do you hide behind a pseudonym? It seems a little odd and undemocratic to me.......

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Mon, 28/05/2012 - 11:25

I've always assumed Tim Bidie was his real name.

Mine, along with Stalin's, Lenin's and so on, is invented. Benn, by contrast, is merely abbreviated.

Tim Bidie's picture
Mon, 28/05/2012 - 11:50

I entirely agree that Stalinism, Thatcherism, Finlandism or just about any other ism, including Tim Bidleism, are completely inappropriate terms for the discussion of English education.

If I listed some of the choicer names, not including the wholly excellent 'Tim Bidle', directed at me, 'reasonable' and 'courtesy' are not words that would spring to mind with regard to this forum.

I have no idea why people hide behind pseudonyms in the same way that I have no idea why people alter family names redolent with the grace and honour of ancestors and previous ages.

We know what is required to improve the educational lot of the most disadvantaged. Their educational needs have to be addressed early, by large numbers of highly trained/qualified educational experts. We also know what is required to address social inequality: first address income inequality.

The former will cost a great deal of money.

The latter will lead to year by year real reductions in overall living standards across the country, making the former much more difficult to achieve:

'The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings. The inherent virtue of Socialism is the equal sharing of miseries.'

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 28/05/2012 - 14:29

You are correct that the educational needs of the disadvantaged, indeed of all children, need to be tackled early on. That's why investment in pre-school is so necessay. And highly-qualified experts are also essential. They are called "teachers". Unfortunately, these educational experts have been rubbished to such an extent that teacher morale is at rock bottom.

Evidence, please, for your contention that addressing income inequality would reduce overall living standards. Read "The Spirit Level" which showed, with evidence, that countries with a narrower gap between rich and poor tend to benefit all inhabitants.

You end your post with yet another saying (you've used this before). But you still haven't explained who the "man" is in your post above. Nor the context of the quote. Neither have you explained "profoundly illiberal sentiments". Giving an example is insufficient. Perhaps you are using "profoundly illiberal sentiments" in the sense described by Orwell - that is, any sentiment with which you disagree. And what exactly was the "so much else"?

Tim Bidie's picture
Mon, 28/05/2012 - 16:34

Illiberal: intolerant; bigoted; narrow-minded as in: ‘If it’s the last thing I do, I’m going to destroy every fcuking grammar school in England. And Wales. And Northern Ireland.’
Anthony Crosland, secretary of state for education, 1965, under Harold Wilson.

I don't think you believe that every teacher is suited or would even want to teach the most disadvantaged pupils, but very loyal of you.

The ones that I have met who do are indeed deeply impressive people.

Regarding 'The Spirit Level', the reviews are not too hot. Maybe I'll give it a miss. Thanks anyway:

"The bottom line is that this is a well-written, stimulating polemic. It nevertheless suffers from the same problems as one-trick ponies: if the one trick does not impress you, the show is a failure. Wilkinson and Pickett’s trick simply does not hold up to empirical scrutiny. When assessing this book as a contribution to the debate on the “right” level of income differences in modern society, it is a highly interesting, sympathetic attempt at addressing some of the important problems of Western societies. Yet, when assessing this book from a scientific point of view, one is forced to conclude that it is a failure."

— Christian Bjornskov, Professor of Economics, University of Aarhus, Population and Development Review, June 2010

Why not read 'The Spirit Level Delusion'?

Tim Bidie's picture
Mon, 28/05/2012 - 19:29

Regarding policies to equalise income, you are probably too young to remember but they were tested to destruction in Eastern Europe 1945-89. Governments pretended to pay the workforce and the workforce pretended to work.

Here is A Noddy's guide:

'Income Inequality is Not an Issue At All. And from a general welfare perspective, income inequality is desirable.

Income inequality is first of all a very important market tool to show which behaviour is economically desirable, and which behaviour isn’t. For example: he who stays in bed earns no income; he who gets on his bike to work does. Result: fewer people stay in bed and society as a whole benefits because there is more activity and production. He who uses a hand loom earns less than he who uses a power loom. The income inequality signals to the person with the hand loom that it’s perhaps time to switch to the 21st century.

Secondly, income inequality is a highly improper tool to tell us anything about poverty. If some are outraged because A earns 100 times what B earns, then it follows that they would be terribly pleased if both A and B earned far less in absolute figures, as long as the multiplier is smaller than 100.

We are then back to Soviet Style economics: let us all be poorer but more equal: it is preferable for A to earn 1,000 and B to earn 1,500; than for A to earn 200,000 and B 2,000. Better all on a bicycle, than you in a Rolls Royce and I in a Tata Nano. This is the economics of the madhouse.'


Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 29/05/2012 - 07:19

Tim - reply to all above (if I can see through my tears of laughter). Sorry, Tim, but you need to go to primary sources and not rely on reviews. Of course, the reviews for "The Spirit Level" are angry because the book may be revealing an essential truth. Why not try reading it? You may still disagree but at least your opinion will be your own and not someone else's which you accept uncritically. Then you can try Will Hutton's "Them and Us".

Secondly, you quote the Adam Smith Institute which strongly supports a free market economy. It's a bit like quoting the research of a tobacco company telling consumers that smoking doesn't damage your health. And I'm not sure that the Adam Smith Institute will appreciate being compared with Noddy and his distinctive calling sign, "Parp, Parp"

And you still haven't let us know who the "man" is that you quoted above. Does he exist? Or is he fictional?

Tim Bidie's picture
Tue, 29/05/2012 - 07:30

Janet - Do try and keep up. Herewith, again! Alan Novak: A summa cum laude graduate of Yale University as a Navy Scholar, of Yale Law School (3nd in Class), and of Oxford University as a Marshall scholar, Mr. Novak, a member of the N.Y. and D.C. bars, practiced law at Cravath, Swaine & Moore and Swidler, Berlin, Shereff & Friedman, LLC, and taught law at Cardozo Law School. His public service includes three years as an officer in the United State Marine Corps, a U.S. Supreme Court Clerkship with Justice Potter Stewart, Senior Counsel to Senator Ted Kennedy, Senior Executive Assistant to undersecretary of State Eugene Rostow, and Executive Director, President Johnson’s Telecommunications Task Force. Appointed by President Carter after service in the Carter White House, Mr. Novak served for five years as Federal Fine Arts Commissioner.

Tim Bidie's picture
Tue, 29/05/2012 - 07:38

Regarding 'The Spirit Level', if an eminent professor of economics says 'when assessing this book from a scientific point of view, one is forced to conclude that it is a failure.' that's good enough for me. "when I see a bird that walks like a duck and swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, I call that bird a duck." James Whitcomb Riley (1849–1916).

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 29/05/2012 - 08:45

Authors of The Spirit Level: Professor Richard G. Wilkinson (Richard Gerald Wilkinson; born 1943), researcher in social inequalities in health and the social determinants of health. He is Professor Emeritus of social epidemiology at the University of Nottingham, having retired in 2008. He is also Honorary Professor at University College London and Visiting Professor at University of York.

Professor Kate Pickett: Epidemiologist, Professor of Epidemiology in the Department of Health Sciences at the University of York and is a National Institute for Health Research Career Scientist.

Do two eminent professors trump one? Read the book - make up your own mind.

Tim Bidie's picture
Tue, 29/05/2012 - 08:56

'The Spirit Level': The book will probably irritate most economists, including those like me who are sympathetic to its basic stance...John Kay, former Director of Institute of Fiscal Studies and Professor of Economics at London Business School,' The evidence in The Spirit Level is weak, the analysis is superficial and the theory is unsupported."— Peter Saunders, Emeritus Professor of Sociology, University of Sussex, 'WP’s inadequate, one-dimensional understanding of social stratification leads to major problems in their account of how the contextual effect is produced."— John Goldthorpe, Emeritus Professor of Sociology, Nuffield College, Oxford;' and so on and so on; also endless reams of refutations of the books hopeless arguments at: http://taxpayersalliance.com/home/2010/07/

I think I'll just stick to Enid Blyton, if that's OK. After all, what's the difference?

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 29/05/2012 - 10:03

Tim - have you ever wondered why "The Spirit Level" has resulted in such an angry response? Read it yourself - you might still disagree but at least it would be your own opinion.

You cite John Kay but you miss the significance of his statement. Kay said he was sympathetic to "the basic stance" of the book. He was irritated because he considered the authors' use of data was flawed and didn't support the premise that a more equal society benefits all, rich and poor. And Professor Goldthorpe criticised the book because he thought it concentrated too much on inequality and not enough on improving the lives of the poor.

There is no doubt that "The Spirt Level" caused controversy (see final link) - it has its supporters and detractors among academics as well as among general commentators. However, I doubt that any of them would lazily dismiss the book as being on a par with Enid Blyton.




Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 29/05/2012 - 09:08

Tim - it's rather difficult to "keep up" if you don't explain what your posts are addressing. You've twice published the CV of an Alan Novak without introduction. Given your past history of posting stuff which is off-thread (ie how to make a cup of tea, unattributed aphorisms, a "witty" poem) I didn't bother reading it because I thought it was irrelevant.

However, it appears your emminent professor is the "man", although you didn't bother giving the context. Novak is said to have been the inspiration of Justice Stewart's description of pornography which you kindly gave us above - ie, you'll know it when you see it. According to Justice Stewart, then, it's in the eye of the beholder which probably summarises your idea of what constitutes a "profoundly illiberal statement" - it's a quote which you dislike.

Which brings us back to Orwell and his belief that some words (eg Stalinist) have little meaning other than "something not desirable".*


*Politics and the English Language. Read it, don't just google it to find a review.

Tim Bidie's picture
Tue, 29/05/2012 - 14:49

It certainly does not bring us back to 'Stalinist', certainly as a noun. I have only used it, as an adjective, once, when walking to the crease as a No 11 bat. Our No 10 asked me what the skipper's instructions were: 'Stalinist' I replied, meaning, obviously, 'defend to the last man'. Thanks for asking. I was promptly bowled first ball by a slow looping viciously swerving yorker, bowled left arm round the wicket. That is the only time, to my certain knowledge, that I have ever let fly a profoundly illiberal sentiment.

Tim Bidie's picture
Tue, 29/05/2012 - 12:53

I tell you what- you read 'The Spirit Level Delusion' and if you still disagree with this assessment of the now totally discredited 'The Spirit Level': 'beyond the merely misleading and enters the realms of flagrant dishonesty.' (reference above) then I might consider bothering to look at it, whilst drinking lashings of ginger beer.

Allan Beavis's picture
Tue, 29/05/2012 - 13:56

I have no idea or interest in knowing who Novak is and perhaps a random cut and paste from the internet is not the best way to be introduced to him.

What might be useful is if people who pose as being informed about education issues actually read a lot more about the subect, especially in the interests of "balance". Not just random press cuttings but actual research papers in their entirety and, yes, the recent books published by Pasi Sahlberg and Melissa Benn. You might not like what they say, but they give invaluable background to the current debate.

andy's picture
Wed, 30/05/2012 - 15:13

Steady on Tabbers. I agree the general thrust of your comments but ease up on the secondary mondern fraternity lest you fall into the same mire as Ms Benn with her broad brush generalisation. I like my older brother and late younger brother went to a secondary modern school. Both of my brothers went into the building trade as project managers and hold/held the construction design manager qualifications (designing good H&S into and bad H&S out of buildings). I went into the RN got a commission and then became a graduate and recently stepped down as deputy head at a large successful comprehensive. I also know that many of my former school chums have done well for themselves - opticians, teachers, electricians and business men.

What irritates me most about many alleged educationalist and experts is that they create division by labelling people as suffering from educational segregation. I do not recognise this at all. Indeed, I find much of it heavily patronising and condesending. My pet hate is people who transmute the education segregation label into educational apartheid, which is errant hyperbolic nonsense. Worse still they spout it with complete disregard to woeful disregard to the way it trivialises, demeans and devalues apartheid which was truly horrendous.

My take on the situation is that diversity offers more channels through which people can aspire to and achieve what they desire. In terms of education that means opening up more opportunities to attain to a better life through education channels that would otherwise be closed to them.

andy's picture
Wed, 30/05/2012 - 15:21

I think it would be really useful to step back and take the Finnish education reforms as a whole and in context. I find it unhelpful to atomise and cheryy-pick the bits that suit individuals and personal agendas for that road leads to dysfunction. Whereas taking the whole message and giving all due consideration to whether and how it could translated to what might be an appropriate alternative for the UK would be far more fruitful and hopeful avoid pontential polemics.

Tim Bidie's picture
Wed, 30/05/2012 - 17:33

There's a bit of a question mark as to whether the Finnish education model could ever transfer anywhere without similar levels of redistribution/social equality, homogeneity, emphasis on the family and a home environment conducive to learning; not much chance of any of that catching on over here, one might surmise.

This is a bit connected to the discussion on another thread regarding whether or not village communities exist any longer to any great extent in Britain and indeed whether that might, in fact, be a good thing

'It is true that the Nordic countries are often cited as examples of countries with high rates of income redistribution and low levels of inequality, but it is problematic to generalise their experience into broader policy recommendations for other countries in the world.

After all, the Mediterranean countries also have high rates of income redistribution but are among the most unequal in Europe.

The difference between the two probably has to do with the fact that the Nordic states are very homogeneous, have high levels of social capital, incentives supporting entrepreneurship and are extremely well-governed.

Simply transplanting Nordic redistributionist policies into environments that do not have these characteristics cannot be expected to deliver the same results.'


Andy's picture
Thu, 31/05/2012 - 19:53

Thank you for the contribution, Tim.

Sadly I fear that rather than develop a meaningful debate/discussion on the issue Francis it has been moved it to a new view that he started today.

I would be very happy to see a radical overhaul of our education system but regrettably others appear to be stuck in rut with the single goal of destroying the independent/private (fee paying) schools on the basis that this will be the panacea for the ills of our national system. There is a lot the UK can learn from other countries but restricting that potential to the sole goal of denying others their democratic right to use their disposable assets in ways that they choose is simply not the way to do it.

If there is to be a debate then let us all be open and honest about not blinkered by what appears to absolute totalitarianism.

timbidie's picture
Sun, 10/06/2012 - 06:51

Andy, brilliant summary by you on this subject: '(educational) diversity offers more channels through which people can aspire to and achieve what they desire. In terms of education that means opening up more opportunities to attain a better life through education channels that would otherwise be closed to them.' Thank you.

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