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on 21 March 2017
Great
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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.
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on 3 November 2011
This is a considered account of present and historical education systems in England that cuts a swathe through the current education hysteria. Questions are asked of those who hold opinions of the present education provisions and proposals for change, whether they be parents, politicians or local authorities. Arguments for and against free schools, faith schools and comprehensive schools, in particular, are laid out clearly for everyone to understand from the facts, rather than biased polemics. Well worth reading.
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on 4 December 2011
In her introduction Melissa Benn sets out her stall- her wish for her children ' to experience just relationships with persons': she then goes on to demonstrate how many lost opportunites there have been in terms of achieving this goal.
Carefully listing the gains that have been made in state education, despite societal barriers, she examines the barriers that have been placed directly in the path of a developing education system.It makes you realise how impressive the state system is...having achieved so much, in a relatively short period of time, despite the obstructions that have been placed in its path! It left me feeling that the argument for a non selective , democratically controlled state system is something we ought to be fighting for- and that current developments ought to be actively challenged and exposed for what they truly are.
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on 9 January 2013
Got this book just before going on holiday over Christmas, it took me just 2 days to finish it. I just couldn't put it down, the logical and insightful analysis of Britain's education provision since the 19th Century made for an interesting read. This was followed by a much needed proverbial knife slicing through the myth and muddled thinking which seems to underpin government policy on education in England. Finally closing with (and I can't paraphrase as it's so apt) a 'rallying call to the left' to fend off and hold the line against the self-serving conservative, business /profit-focused groups circling over the seemingly inevitable march towards the marketisation of English state education provision.
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on 25 March 2014
There seems to be a battle over education which is in effect a battle for the future. Privatisation of education is opposed by parents who uniformly say that the education of their children is more important than the profits of education companies.

One aspect of privatisation is the employment of unqualified underpaid teachers. As soon as parents are made aware of this they oppose it. All of the politicians implicitly or explicitly support it because it is a way of saving money and "times are hard."

Private profit is no basis for the education of children. The focus for teachers is the welfare of the children not the profits of fat cats and not the "performance bonuses" which set teacher against teacher and the devil take the hindmost

Melissa Benn (British readers will recognise the surname!) is on the side of the angels in this war. And the future depends on this war.

Classroom Teacher Manual

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on 20 November 2012
This is a very accurate account of the current mess which has been created by the coalition government in education. We have entered a scary 'free for all' situation which somewhat depressingly I cannot see changing for the foreseeable future.
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on 21 July 2014
Essential reading for anyone who wants to know what the Tories are really doing to schools. There damaging policies are not properly explained in the media, whose owners have an interest in privatising and dumbing-down education.
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on 21 June 2015
This book covers how we ended up with the current education system we have today dating from WW2 to present day. The book is thorough, detailed and insightful. Melissa Been analyses trends in education and how policy has shaped the educational system we have today. A must read for anyone interested or undertaking teacher training. A very useful way to look at the bigger picture behind schools today.
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on 17 December 2011
There is an expression doing the rounds in the world of education 'good enough for other people's children'. It actually means the opposite, and points to an unacceptable acceptance of inequality in educational provision and performance. Melissa Benn is clearly against that, and makes a strong and very readable case which deserves to be read by those who don't already agree with her.

Nonetheless, there are a number of points that could have been faced or developed further. She might, for example, have asked questions about the funding gap between independent (private) education and state schooling, and how much it would cost in terms of teachers' salaries to equalise pupil-teacher ratios in the latter with those in the former. It would let us know how steep the uphill task faced by teachers in comprehensive schools actually is.

She might also, if she is to reach those who are not already persuaded of her case, need at some point to answer questions about what should happen when things don't quite go right. An obvious one is what the response should be to a manifestly failing school or local authority, but there are others.

The evidence from London is that social sorting in state schooling, whether by parents, schools or both, was endemic in all London boroughs by the middle of the last decade - well before the arrival of Free Schools. I very much doubt that those involved would be persuaded by exhortations presented in 'School Wars' for parents to support their local school.

And then there is the point that one size does not, never did, and never will fit all. In order to teach a wide range of specialist subjects, schools need to be large, and state schools also cater for a wide age range. Both points lead to rules that need to be applied equally to all pupils, irrespective of whether the are the right rules for each child or not. That point in itself can prompt good teachers to move to smaller independent schools. I did work in such a school, where that view was commonplace.

Understandably, anyone whose work is published will want it to be read, and 'School Wars' deserves to be read by those who support public (as opposed to private) schooling. I look forward to the next book which takes on those who support, but have reservations about, that schooling, and those who are simply opposed to it.
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