Life Lessons

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With the huge cuts in school funding, the crisis in teacher recruitment and retention, the increase in tuition fees and the lack of funding for adult education, the English education system appears to be on the brink of collapse. This book’s fundamental message is one that urges us to consider what needs to be tackled and overcome within our divided and failing schools and colleges.

Benn illustrates the current system’s flaws and offers a radical approach that would uproot a deeply hierarchical structure in favour of “a genuinely equitable education system”. She focuses not only on the struggling primary and secondary schools — beaten down by academy chains, free schools, drastic cuts, and increasing workload and lower pay — but widens the lens to consider the state of the entire educational apparatus that is diminishing the vitality of life-long learning and preventing learners from achieving their ambitions and “their very personhood”.

Benn does not shy away from confronting the brutal fact that “the current Conservative government has no strategic or even positive vision for the improvement of education”.

She argues that the emerging crises in education are rooted in the drive towards academisation begun in 1998 and accelerated in 2010 by the Coalition government, which has cemented the influence of corporations and private control over public education. Benn points out that the hierarchical education system encourages private schools, allowing them to run as charities with lower tax rates than other businesses, taking away a potential £522 million from state schools.

The national increase in academy chains and free schools creates catastrophic divisions that limit democratic control over schools. A National Education Service would give this power back to the councils, communities and parents.

Benn’s commentary shines a glaring light on a broken system that is in danger of hurtling into a “frighteningly skeletal and unfit for purpose” situation, where working as a teacher is either too badly paid to live comfortably or too stressful to manage.

As a teacher of merely four years, I struggle to ascertain why in a profession that globally is considered essential for our future generations, “a highly skilled, confident, well-paid and autonomous profession” is consistently undermined.

As Benn rightly says, it is time for “boldness” against a set-up that not only demoralises its workers but has worsened mental health in students and created an onerous culture of testing and league tables. For all teachers who want to feel hopeful for the future of education, Benn’s policy is a vision many of us will share and gladly partake in establishing within schools as much as we can.

It has to be a national policy change though, and what Benn doesn’t spell out is the manner in which we might be able to make these changes. There are references made to the unions, particularly the National Education Union (NEU), but there is little direct mention of the unionised action that is essential to create this drive for a National Education Service and the struggle we must endure to provide a comprehensive and equitable education.

With NEU currently holding an indicative ballot on the unfunded and unequal pay rise for teachers, we must begin to gather determination. Educational reform will only be possible if we fight for it as workers on the ground. We must have conversations about what a better educational system could deliver, but there has to be much more campaigning for education and developing a strategy of union action that can deliver this sort of vision.