Responding to Melissa Benn: ‘We need to bring public education back into public hands’

On 4th July this year, the writer and campaigner Melissa Benn gave the Annual Education Lecture at King’s College London. To a full house in the Great Hall at the Strand, she presented an argument for a ‘new settlement’ around public education, one that has been formed into the case for a National Education Service. You can read more about Melissa’s argument in her recent book ‘Life Lessons’. I was asked to give a formal response to the lecture and this is what I said:

Thank you, Melissa, for a wonderfully critical and also optimistic lecture. It is the combination of insightful analysis and the generous provision of a ‘map that has utopia’ on it that marks out the genuine ‘public intellectual’ and Melissa is certainly one of our most persuasive and necessary public intellectuals. The ‘real thing’.

If the organising committee thought I might be critical of Melissa’s lecture, to excite debate and provoke discussion, then I’m going to disappoint.  I share many of the same commitments – politically and educationally – as well as what I think might be a similar feeling of responsibility to articulate a hopeful plan – or at least enumerate some ideas that are available to be picked up after this current crisis is over. And I do think that it is a crisis, as Melissa has said, nationally and educationally. Crucially, though, none of these discussions should end with critique alone.

Thank you also to the organising committee who invited me to respond. It is a genuine privilege to be given time to present my own comments before we open up a wider discussion through the Q&A. So thank you to Meg Maguire, our chair this evening, and the other members of that committee, including Olivia Beckhurst, our Communications Officer.

I’m going to use the short time I have to make two sets of brief comments. The first are by way of direct response to what Melissa has said tonight – and what she has also written in Life Lessons, which I thoroughly recommend. The second set of comments even more briefly reflect on what Melissa’s arguments might mean for university departments of Education, like ours, that historically have had responsibilities for the initial preparation and continuing development of education professionals as well as to the production of educational research.

In diagnosing the causes of the current crisis in education, Melissa I think rightly identifies pervasive marketisation – or quasi-marketisation – of public services as part of the problem. The failure of the supposed lever of apparent choice – if not exactly price competition – between professional, public services now reconfigured as ‘providers’ subject to the techniques of New Public Management. Addressing the negative effects of marketisation and competition is clearly a strategic part of constructing a National Education Service. But I would also want to isolate some other factors that have led to the crises (national as well as educational) that now confront us here in the UK or, even more specifically, England and so give a different emphasis in my response. One of these factors is central government’s attack on local government that started in the 1980s and that has at times escalated into attacks on public institutions and ‘experts’ more generally. In the 1980s, there were two apparent bases for these attacks: a question of competence (the allegation that local authorities lacked basic organisational competence) and questions of interference (that they, like ‘experts’ more recently, were obstacles to legitimate reforms by central government).

In 2019, the idea that central government alone has a unique claim to competence now of course looks quaint if not downright ridiculous. And in my personal experience, even the most ardent advocate of academisation would accept, within a few conversational turns, that there were – are, indeed – good and effective local education authorities who support their schools to get better just as there are incompetent and corrupt multi-academy trusts who don’t. For me, an essential part of creating a National Education Service would therefore be to strengthen local and regional government and, crucially, broader democratic processes, to ensure that local priorities and community needs are fed in to what might otherwise become the national, statist priorities of a system in the abstract.

One of the often repeated mantras of the ‘New Education Establishment of edu-Twitter’ that Melissa has mentioned is that ‘we are where we are; academisation can’t be rolled back; local authorities are relics of the past’. And the New Educational Establishment has been very successful in promoting that message. But of course they are wrong. As Melissa has said and, indeed, as Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings demonstrated, if you have the political will and energy and the ideas are there, available for you to use, things can change quite quickly.

So in addition to the distortions that market mechanisms produce in a public education service, an important aspect of the current crisis is what is sometimes rather portentously called the ‘democratic deficit’ – the withering away of both representative democracy at a local level as well as opportunities for active participation in democratic processes that affect both the ‘delivery’ and the experience of the service.

Crucially, it’s not only a question of regulatory oversight – so that senior school leaders like the head at a stand-alone academy can’t pay himself £260,000 a year. It’s about much more than regulatory oversight. It’s about the right of people – students, parents and the wider community – to inform the development of their local school and to insist that it is responsive and accountable to them and not only accountable to central government.

Politically, another factor in the current crises is undoubtedly the crisis in Conservatism, something we see played out every day now on the news. On the one hand, a libertarian, relatively free market right, happy to let the market decide and committed to Milton Friedman’s elision of capitalism and freedom. On the other, a paternalistic, culturally nostalgic right, terrified (and I don’t think that’s too strong a word) of letting the market decide in abject fear of getting the wrong ‘outcome’. So right now in education, we seem to have both a ‘reluctant’ state and an ‘authoritarian’ one – a state that regrets ever getting involved in public education and is keen to withdraw and a state deeply afflicted by something that Paul Gilroy has called ‘postcolonial melancholia’ and wishes to turn back the clock to a mythic ‘golden age’. To quote Gilroy:

In the postcolonial twilight, to encounter difference produces only jeopardy. In response to that threat, the historic obligation to conserve culture produces a different conservatism: readily racialized, nationalized and now gene biologized.

So, in the current educational crisis, we end up with an official definition of knowledge that consists of the Arnoldian ‘best that has been thought and said’ (a direct and unattributed quotation) and the promotion of a ‘knowledge rich’ curriculum without asking whose knowledge – and to what ends?

Some of my own resources of hope in responding to this crisis of culture – of postcolonial melancholia – are some of the youngest people in society, whether school-age young people’s impatient insistence on the declaration of a climate change emergency or university students confidently asking their lecturers ‘why is my curriculum so White?’ And equally impatiently insisting on decolonising the curriculum. However society deals with these legitimate demands from its citizens, they have to be dealt with. As Melissa has said, you can’t just get just put young people in blazers to chant Wordsworth in rows and pretend these questions don’t exist, as much as it is clearly possible to try.

Which brings me to my final point. If we accept that Melissa has given us some of the tools to think about how we get out of the current crisis in education, what role do university departments of education have to play? How can we contribute?

Well, sadly, I think we are currently woefully unprepared to be of any assistance whatsoever. Generally speaking (and I am aware this is something of a generalisation), I think education departments in England are split between two groups of people playing two entirely different games: the REF game and the Ofsted ITE (and perhaps the TEF) game. On the one hand, an ever smaller number of researchers who are producing an ever smaller number of ‘high quality’ papers that very few people actually read and can make use of. And on the other hand, a group of people who help to prepare next generation of teachers and other education professionals who are basically delivering a product that someone else designed (for example, the PGCE and Qualified Teacher Status), whether the designers are the DfE, the former National College, Ofsted or what their colleagues put together twenty years ago. Nationally, across England, I don’t get any sense of there being many vibrant new ideas in initial teacher education, particularly ones that can help to change things for the better.

Personally, I find it deeply depressing that the energy and imagination and the new ideas are coming from those who Melissa terms the New Educational Establishment and who are committed to an entirely different view of education and, indeed, an entirely different view of society. The momentum has been in the opposite direction – focusing on the rehearsal of technical skills without always the cultivation of the professional judgement necessary to use them – and indeed, improve them. Or the promotion of ‘no excuses behaviour management’ policies on the assumption that if only the ‘unruly’ child (disproportionately Black and/or working class) would shut up, all would be well. The New Education Establishment has been very effective at connecting these ideas to the issue of teacher workload – quite misleadingly, in my opinion (you don’t need to ‘flatten the grass’ to make the job of teaching do-able). But where are the other voices being equally adept rhetorically adept at promoting humane and humanising alternatives. I would tentatively suggest they are few in number from within university departments of education, at least, and we kid ourselves if we think this question can be addressed entirely on Twitter.

Of course, there are exceptions – and we have several exceptions in the room tonight from King’s School of Education, Communication and Society. For example, Dr Mel Cooke’s work with teachers of English to speakers of other languages. Or Dr Tania de St Croix’s work with youth work professionals. Both integrating close and mutually beneficial engagements with educational professionals in the context of critical analyses of society. And there are, of course, others I don’t have time to name. But generally-speaking, my view is that academics in English university departments of education, particularly in the context of teacher education, have not even started to renegotiate the terms of engagement with practice, with the professional fields we (at least officially) have obligations to work with every day.

It is the fourth of July today. So before we go home to watch the military parade in Washington DC on the television, I will end by referring to a figure that Melissa quotes from in Life Lessons, John Adams, the second President of the United States. Adams’ famous letter to a British reformer in 1785 is often quoted to remind us of the purpose of public education (something the revolutionary United States took much more seriously than Great Britain, for understandable reasons) and the duty of government to secure this obligation:

The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and will be willing to bear the expense of it. …[Schools] not founded by a charitable individual but maintained at the public expense of the people themselves.

John Adams also wrote the constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts that included, in its original draft, a ‘paragraph on education’ that might count as a very early example of formal education policy in English. Adams’ ‘paragraph on education’ called for the diffusion of virtues and values as well as knowledge generally ‘among the body of the people’ not because it would necessarily improve their individual economic wealth but because it was ‘necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties’. The ‘duty of legislatures’ was to uphold this entitlement to public (rather than ‘state’) education because it was one of the principal ways through which the publics themselves were constituted. And the ‘whole people’ had to take on this responsibility and burden and use their agency to shape it. The people had to ‘own’ (in more than one sense of the word) public education.

To return to Melissa’ lecture, I want to repeat something she said early on: ‘We are witnessing the slow drift of public education from public hands. We need to bring public education back into public hands.’ That is the strongest and most fundamental message for me from this lecture and one that I believe we have to attend to urgently, whether we like the word ‘crisis’ or not.

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