Skip to content
The UK's only independent think tank devoted to higher education.

Jonathan Simons Reviews “Life Lessons: The Case for a National Education Service” by Melissa Benn

  • 5 November 2018
  • By Jonathan Simons

Jonathan Simons, formerly Director of Policy and Research for the Varkey Foundation, writes a review of the new book Life Lessons: The Case for a National Education Service by Melissa Benn.

In the afterword of her short book, Melissa Benn recounts a speech she gave at a political meeting, in which she set out conclusions based on “carefully prepared years of research, analysis and policy”. The dispiriting response is instead a request for quick nudge style policies which might land with No.10.

Benn’s counterpoint is that the time for such marginal reforms is past; that “it is time for boldness, for the setting out of ideas that will bring real change”. This serves as a leitmotif for the whole book, which is ostensibly a call for radical change across all aspects of the education system from early years through to HE and FE, all under the remit of Labour’s mooted National Education Service.

The reason that I say ostensibly is that in many areas, despite decrying incrementalism, Benn actually subscribes to it, and indeed sets out a manageable and implementable set of proposals. To be clear, I mean this as no criticism – indeed, as a former civil servant, to be presented with a set of proposals which are radical but are manageable and implementable is perhaps the greatest compliment I can give. What I find most fascinating about this book is the extent to which this trade off is never acknowledged. Indeed, to the extent Benn discusses questions of practicality, she tends, as in the anecdote above, to equate these with those who are not sufficiently committed to making the changes that are needed. This approach, she writes, has “fatal limitations. … don’t look at the big picture, give us a small, smart, relatively safe idea that politicians might snap up”.

Yet to take just two examples – her approach to teacher supply, and to HE reform – bold claims lead (and again, I mean this positively) to a smaller set of proposed changes. On teacher supply, Benn lays out the familiar but no less important series of failures that exist at present around recruitment, retention, morale and burnout. She laments the move away from extended ITT at universities towards shorter schemes as driven by organisations such as Teach First, and attacks performance related pay. Yet alongside a call for restoring ITT to universities under a managed place allocation framework, and for the reintroduction of national pay and conditions for all teachers, Benn recognises the power of Teach First in taking teachers to areas of the country where they might not naturally go, and suggests an expanded role for them doing so, with “generous packages”. The charge here is not hypocrisy. It’s a recognition that simply wishing higher standards and status and pay and training, without some concept of how to do this, makes for poor statecraft.

A significant chunk of the book is devoted to HE and to adult education. The latter makes for the easiest target and the most straightforward of recommendations. Lifelong learning, the book recommends, should be restored to a key feature of the system and funded appropriately. Rejuvenated FE colleges should be at the heart of communities. Adults who don’t go to university should not be financially disadvantaged in terms of state subsidy compared to those who do go. It is hard to find anyone even in the current government who disagrees with this principle; the issue remains one of priorities from within available resources and it is easy to imagine a Labour government correcting this.

On HE, the focus of the book is predominantly around financing. Although Benn endorses Labour’s proposals of free at the point of use HE, she is keen to explore a compromise between the current model of fees and what she accepts may be seen as an expensive free riding system. She turns, as do many, to a variant of the graduate tax and sets out two proposals. The first is for an all age graduate tax, which is covered relatively briefly before a list of the problems are identified with it (how do HMRC know who is a graduate, how far back retrospectively does a tax reach, what about those educated overseas) and slightly disturbingly, a conclusion is reached that “there is no reason why such details cannot be ironed out with further consideration” For someone who has just written a book which outlines just such considerations, this is a weak ending. More interesting is an endowment scheme: termed a National Higher Education Endowment (NHEE) and funded partly from tax hypothecated from higher earners. The rationale is two fold: it brings a sense of collective funding to HE where those who benefit do continue to pay, but in a more equitable manner. Secondly, the principle of hypothecation ought to grant greater legitimacy to education. Here, she notes that orthodox Treasury accounting always treats education as a cost, rather than an investment. This is not a point exclusively held on the Left – indeed such a case was recently echoed by Justine Greening, and of course the Liberal Democrats were, before their own flirtation with fame via the issue of HE financing, perhaps best known for “a penny on income tax to pay for Education”.

The most fascinating section of the book comes when Benn addresses the need to (crudely speaking) sell this politically. The issue, as she rightly sets out, is “how to put the case for greater equality without appearing to compromise ‘standards’ in this toxic political climate?”  She notes the difficulty of “returning from the wilder shores of utopian political speculation to the unforgiving playground of contemporary political debate” and accepts that however in her view mis-intentioned, “many policies of the past 70 years have stemmed….from attempts to reduce some or all from underachievement and a lack of self fulfilment” The answer, as she sees it, is a model of education “both progressive and rigorous”.

Sadly, she then moves away from such introspection. The end of the book is a long list of legislative proposals, many of which are standard ones of the left in education: abolition of SATS and Ofsted,  the reintroduction of private and grammars into the mainstream comprehensive system, a gradual increase of LA powers and the bringing Academies under them. Yet I found myself coming back to her challenge of how progressives can address educational challenges whilst preserving that which is good and has gone before, and secure popular consent for an increase in expenditure. I realised I have seen one system that had come close to achieving this. Congratulations, Melissa Benn. You have finally embraced Blairism.

1 comment

  1. albert wright says:

    The book itself looks like it may be worth a read. The commentary is certainly interesting.

    I totally agree with the need for radical change but I think the review needs to start with an answer to the question “what do we want our educational system to achieve ?” and then the question of “How can we best deliver this?” before looking at how it might be financed and governed.

    In answer to the second question around how we will deliver education, we must examine how we can make the task more efficient and less costly.

    Education and health are two of the sectors with very low productivity over the last 10 years and with no clear mechanism of how to spread best practice.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *