Top critical review
3 people found this helpful
Passionate but lazy
on 26 December 2012
This is a manifesto for a return to a non-selective education system led by successful comprehensives, and an impassioned denunciation of New Labour's undermining of the comprehensive system and centralisation of power over education. The general argument is that comprehensives work well, that selection has been conclusively shown in cross-country studies to lower overall educational performance, and that the Coalition is forcing academies and free schools on us and tilting the balance against comprehensives by diktat and bribery. The result will be a decline in performance, reduced parental oversight, increased class tensions, and a sharpening of inter-ethnic and inter-faith tensions, all in the context of increased system complexity and a rhetoric of 'parental choice' which disguises the reality that it is the schools that will select the pupils, not vice verse. Private sector edu-preneurs are to be allowed to cream off profits, but the state will pick up the pieces when they fail.
So far so good. My objection to Melissa Benn's book is that it is disorganized. Each 'chapter subject' is drowned out by the book's general argument, and the impetus of each chapter is constantly interrupted by anecdotes about visits to particular schools, or retelling of comments from particular parent. These are well enough told, but the general impact is to blur the outlines, with key themes incontinently reappearing in each chapter. Chapters 2 and 3, which tell the story of "how we got here" are by far the best, clearly argued, and logically ordered. Chapter 1 is chaotic. Toward the end the book deteriorates again into a formless re-hash of the general argument, and I found it hard to keep turning the pages. Some key points, such as the differences between free schools and academies, are never properly explained, and this reader finished the book confused about how much control remains in the hands of local authorities and how much this varies by area. I sensed that Benn either couldn't be bothered to tidy the book up by reducing opinionation and increasing factual and analytic content, or didn't realize that this was necessary.
Benn is passionately hostile towards free-marketers and reformers, considering them moral monsters, thieves and profiteers, or totally deluded by fashion and their own lack of exposure to the comprehensive system. Of course, the book would have benefited from a more dispassionate attempt to understand her opponents.
The book would also have gained enormously in persuasive power, if at least a third had been devoted to a discussion of the successful alternatives which we are told exist in other countries, such as Finland and Alberta in Canada. But we are not even provided with proper references to discussions of these cases. There is now a huge amount of cross-country work on the issues that Benn deals with, but once again, she prefers opinionating to clearly collecting, arranging, and presenting the comparative evidence.
To sum up: I wouldn't have bought Benn's book if I hadn't been sympathetic to her viewpoint. I enjoyed it, but thought it was lazy. It is a manifesto, but it neglects to equip its readers with the comparative evidence to substantiate its argument, or to provide proper references to material elsewhere. Some other readers have used the term "rant" and obviously there is some truth to this criticism. I finished the book better-informed and still sympathetic to her case, but strongly feeling that this is not "the book" which would fully equip me to understand the changes that education is undergoing, and even less to understand the richness of cross-country evidence about what is possible in education. A pity.