Yet again Melissa Benn speaks with eloquence and wisdom about our fractured education system in England (Our schools are broken. Only radical action will fix them, 9 August). There is a need for a structural overhaul of this confusing complexity of provision, which I find impossible to explain to my overseas friends.
Yes, the obsession with metrics and bean-counting at the heart of it, as part of a globalised competitive system, needs to be confronted as harmful and restrictive for staff and students, but so too does the influence this has on the internal regimes in our schools, which increasingly resemble prisons with their compulsory school uniforms for the inmates and authoritarian regimes (designed to ensure compliance to achieve results), with some practices worthy of an appeal to the Equality and Human Rights Commission.
So I hope Melissa Benn’s forthcoming book and the pending Labour party review of education will address the impact of the external and structural issues on the internal life of our schools, where there is well-documented evidence of significant and rising levels of stress for staff and students.
Dr Barry Dufour
Visiting professor of education studies, De Montfort University
• I’m not sure what Melissa Benn means when she refers to “uncritical acceptance” of the official claims made about academies and free schools. For those of us on the left it was clear from the start that the policy was designed to remove local control of education and create a two-tier system. Academisation was privatisation in all but name, with the predictable effect of transferring public money into private hands.
Initially, before the failures and bankruptcies began to hit the headlines, we were bombarded with good news stories about academies that prospered at the expense of schools still in local council control, which had to rely more and more on parent-teacher association fundraising for essential items. Pouring money into academies and free schools was clearly a divide-and-rule strategy in an already elitist education system.
Radical action should start with removing charitable status from public schools. They are not charities, they are businesses charging enormous fees and making money from other ventures, including land speculation. It is a scandal that they are allowed to avoid tax and business rates while state schools continue to struggle through funding cuts and the inevitable staff demoralisation.
• Melissa Benn is undoubtedly right. However, I fear the solutions she offers lack a long-term aim. As I have tried to argue in a recent book, Immoral Education: The Assault on Teachers’ Identities, Autonomy and Efficacy, we lack an agreed moral purpose for education. As a result teachers, children, young people and the future citizens of a democratic society remain vulnerable to the vicissitudes of political and economic policies.
The results are, as Melissa Benn recognises, a demoralised workforce that is voting with its feet (more teachers leave than enter the profession) and young people who are denied an education that might help them learn how to be human beings (increasing and disproportionate numbers of young people being permanently excluded from school).
What is happening to education is criminal, and we do need radical action. The necessary change should, however, be informed by an agreed moral purpose, not merely a laudable reaction to present government policies.
Dr Simon Gibbs
Reader in educational psychology, Newcastle University
• Our schools aren’t “broken”; students are still learning; teachers are still teaching; and state schools are still good places to live and learn in – for the most part. I don’t recognise the picture gaudily painted in the article. I fear that, if they are convinced by it, middle-class Guardian readers will be anxiously scouring websites to find places in the independent sector for their offspring.
This is not to deny that our educational system has been badly served by governments, especially during this decade, or that the changes advocated would not be beneficial. But talk of “broken schools” is dangerous, misleading hyperbole.
Professor Colin Richards
Spark Bridge, Cumbria
• Melissa Benn’s coruscating and justified assault on the political changes made to our education system should be sent to every MP by constituent parents and grandparents with the questions “How did you let this happen?” and “What are you doing about it?”.
It is a national disgrace that the future of our children has been so mishandled.
Reform of our education system by restoring trust in teachers must also reflect on what the world may be like in, say, 30 years’ time when today’s schoolchildren will be in the prime of their lives. As the Guardian has warned readers, “Millions fear being replaced by machines, study finds” (6 August) and “This [extreme global weather] is the face of climate change, say scientists” (28 July).
Schools should engage with local communities on these issues and devise appropriate curricula: building stronger local communities might be identified on the grounds that when adverse environmental conditions rage, neighbourly support is vital. Also preparing for more leisure time would be worthwhile, including learning how to grow some foods!
Emeritus professor of education, Nottingham Trent University
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