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17 July 2019

Campaigner Melissa Benn sparks an engaging education debate

School of Education, Communication and Society

Melissa Benn’s rousing speech about the current state of education in England lecture drew almost 200 members of the public, King’s students, alumni and staff to Kings' annual education lecture

Melissa Benn speaking at the podium

Melissa Benn’s rousing speech about the current state of education in England lecture drew almost 200 members of the public, King’s students, alumni and staff to the School of Education, Communication and Society’s annual education lecture

On 4 July 2019 Melissa Benn, education campaigner, writer and journalist discussed the ever-changing landscape of the English school system and the implications for democracy. She explored the contours of a commonly agreed crisis in English education and what she sees as hopeful signs of a consensus around a way forward.

She started with an overview of the current political climate and its impact on education:

"Our nation is in a kind of paralysis, living through a time of growing inequality and frightening cultural divides. Political attention is obsessively focused on a phony war between two right wing figures - one dull, and one unstable. Despite Hunt and Johnson making vague promises around spending in education and hikes in public sector pay, their policy towards education is unlikely to repair yawning gaps in funding - a real terms 8% cut in funding since 2010 - or break down stubborn inequalities".

"But unpromising as this moment is, the simplest of my messages today is that we must not give up hope of something better and of an education service run on different lines".

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Dr Viv Ellis, Professor of Educational Leadership and Teacher Development at Kings' School of Education, provided a most eloquent response to Melissa’s speech. In his speech he commented:

"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."

He went on later to say:

“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…if you have the political will and energy and the ideas are there, available for you to use, things can change quite quickly.”

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The lively Q&A after the lecture both supported and challenged Melissa’s speech. Lecture attendees tweeted their thoughts on the evening:

"Searingly articulate and prophetic vision from Melissa Benn this evening"(@jamesklair)

"Benn begins her speech by challenging the term ‘crisis’ in the advertised title of her speech because she stressed that teachers are doing great work right now"(@lnmulholland)

"Benn calls for political leadership and that politicians need to listen and borrow radical ideas that are emerging but it’s all OUR job to speak up and speak out for educational alternatives. It’s now crucial, crisis or not" (@cityalan)

"Excellent lecture from #Benn2019 on importance of comprehensive school system with local control and local inspection if we want democracy" (@CITeachED)

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Simon Lam, special needs teaching assistant at Gospel Oak Primary School said of the event:

“As a newly qualified teacher who has evidenced the looming crises in education over the past few years, it was great to hear Melissa Benn inform and explore the chronological events and policy strategies that had led us to where we are now as well as giving her alternative vision of a National Education Service.

“With regards to my area of interest in teacher recruitment and retention, I was intrigued to hear Ms. Benn outline her realistic alternatives for the training and retaining of teaching professionals - a pressing problem of this crisis which, in my opinion, needs a robust and effective long-term solution.”

Couldn't make the lecture? Watch the video

You can watch the full lecture on our YouTube channel.

In this story

Meg Maguire

Professor of Sociology of Education