All posts by melissabenn

Why do we love the NHS but not state education?

If you really want to understand the subtly shifting place of education in the nation’s psyche, you could start by watching Channel 4’s 24 Hours in A&E. Dedicated professionals deploying skill, tenacity and tenderness towards citizens of every age, faith, shape and class – it’s a story we seem never to tire of. It’s proof that the NHS, despite all its problems, is still the nearest thing this country has to a religion.

And yet, this passion for our often struggling health system poses a conundrum that has long fascinated me. Both the NHS and free secondary education arose from the collective optimism of the years after the second world war, pillars of the newly founded welfare state. Yet while the NHS, set up in 1948, generated instant and enduring affection, the 1944 Education Act, which established the right to free secondary education for all children up to 15 (now 18), is far less lauded, and our school system has more often spawned a nagging sense of dissatisfaction and division.

In one sense, the reason is glaringly obvious. Although there had been discussion before the war about setting up a “multilateral” (that is, comprehensive) system of secondary education, parliament opted for a three-tiered arrangement, which became two as technical schools never took off. So was the grammar-secondary modern divide born, channelling most poor children into poorly funded, less well-regarded schools.

Imagine if NHS hospitals and surgeries had been set up with two entrances: one for the affluent, one for the poor. Or if politicians had spent the succeeding half a century dismissing big general hospitals as blinkered examples of an outdated “one injury fits all” ideology.

Of course, we need and expect different things from our health and education systems. While our encounters with the NHS are largely episodic, times of emergency and vulnerability, the school we attend is often taken as the crucible of our identity. The wealthy still use A&E, but many wouldn’t dream of going anywhere near a local school, a reminder that perhaps the biggest mistake of that heroic postwar period was the failure to integrate the public schools into the new universal state system, so missing a unique opportunity to bridge what remains one of the most damaging divides in society.

For all that, there have been periods when one could glimpse a shift in public attitudes towards state education, an idealism to match the NHS. One significant moment came in the 60s with the move towards comprehensive education, but although the 11-plus was phased out in most parts of the country, more subtle forms of selection have continued to stoke division.

Gove-ism represented another key shift, as an influential section of the Conservative party finally ditched its party’s traditional support for grammars and embraced an almost militant evangelism about high-quality non-selective education, even if some academies and free schools are driven to use their so-called freedoms to keep out lower-performing children.

Television programmes such as Educating Essex and Educating Yorkshire have generated public affection and respect for the ordinary heroism of staff and pupils in our state schools, while lazy anti-comprehensive prejudice has been undercut by a new generation in public life educated in non-selective schools, including the education secretary, Justine Greening.

We should be deeply worried, then, by reports that Theresa May intends to lift the 18-year ban on creating new grammar schools. The rhetoric is predictably obfuscating, with a lot of guff about making secondary moderns better or letting selective schools operate as “specialists” in a more diverse, choice-driven schools market.

The grammar lobby is clearly displaying post-Brexit braggadocio in trying to drag us back to a discredited past. Such a move would not only be educationally, socially and morally wrong headed, it would be a near criminal waste of a powerful and unprecedented moment in the story of our state education system: the existence of a strong evidence-based consensus across a wide spectrum of political opinion that we could, and should, create a quality system along genuinely multilateral lines.

Build on, and invest in, that vision and it’s possible public loyalty to state education will continue to grow. Return to crass historical divisions, and the dissatisfaction and disunion will surely last for another half century – or longer.

This article was published in the Guardian on August 9th 2016

Well, that didn’t take long did it? Responding to Theresa May on grammar schools

Melissa Benn, Chair of Comprehensive Future, annotates Theresa May’s supposedly ‘One Nation’ speech on the steps of Downing Street on July 13th in the light of announcements that she looks likely to lift the ban on the creation of new grammar schools.

I have just been to Buckingham Palace, where Her Majesty The Queen has asked me to form a new government, and I accepted.

In David Cameron, I follow in the footsteps of a great, modern Prime Minister. Under David’s leadership, the government stabilised the economy, reduced the budget deficit, and helped more people into work than ever before.


Perhaps the most significant aspect of Cameron’s ‘modernity’ as PM was his recognition that the traditional Tory support for grammars had to be ditched. Over the past decade, an influential section of the party studied the evidence on grammars and social mobility and came to the considered conclusion that selective education hindered the life chances of poorer children. In the words of David Willetts, then Tory front-bench spokesman on education and employment, in his seminal speech on the issue, in 2007,‘ we must break free from the belief that academic selection is any longer the way to transform the life chances of bright poor kids..’ and that ‘ there is overwhelming evidence that such academic selection entrenches advantage, it does not spread it.’

But David’s true legacy is not about the economy but about social justice. From the introduction of same-sex marriage, to taking people on low wages out of income tax altogether; David Cameron has led a one-nation government, and it is in that spirit that I also plan to lead.

Cameron’s government recognised that it could never appear serious about ‘social justice’ as long as it continued to back selective education, which so clearly hinders the educational and later life chances of the majority of the working class and less well off. International data is clear: the earlier selection occurs, the greater the effect of socio-economic background on results.

Because not everybody knows this, but the full title of my party is the Conservative and Unionist Party, and that word ‘unionist’ is very important to me.

It means we believe in the Union: the precious, precious bond between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. But it means something else that is just as important; it means we believe in a union not just between the nations of the United Kingdom but between all of our citizens, every one of us, whoever we are and wherever we’re from.

That means fighting against the burning injustice that, if you’re born poor, you will die on average 9 years earlier than others.

If you’re black, you’re treated more harshly by the criminal justice system than if you’re white.

If you’re a white, working-class boy, you’re less likely than anybody else in Britain to go to university.

A grammar school system is supposedly designed to identify the academically talented from all social and ethnic backgrounds. The evidence is stark: it does not. Recent data from Buckinghamshire’s Local, Equal and Excellent group shows that high ability children from poor backgrounds, and some ethnic groups, do disproportionately badly under the 11+, suggesting that the exam is as much a reflection of family advantage and cultural capital, as raw academic talent.

Meanwhile, in selective systems, such as those which operate in Buckinghamshire, Kent and parts of Lincolnshire, the vast majority of children from lower income homes are turned away from grammar schools and forced to attend a secondary modern (although generally the school is re-badged under another, less damaging, title) where their prospects of achieving good GCSEs have been shown to be worse than if they had attended a comprehensive school.

If you’re at a state school, you’re less likely to reach the top professions than if you’re educated privately.

If you’re a woman, you will earn less than a man.

If you suffer from mental health problems, there’s not enough help to hand.

If you’re young, you’ll find it harder than ever before to own your own home.

All of those social and other difficulties will be hugely compounded if you attend a secondary modern.

But the mission to make Britain a country that works for everyone means more than fighting these injustices. If you’re from an ordinary working class family, life is much harder than many people in Westminster realise. You have a job but you don’t always have job security. You have your own home, but you worry about paying a mortgage. You can just about manage but you worry about the cost of living and getting your kids into a good school.

The ability to buy in ‘intensive coaching’ has been shown to be one of the biggest determinants of success in passing the 11 + exam. Children living in the wealthier areas of Buckinghamshire are twice as likely to pass the 11+ as children living in poorer areas. Children at private schools are nearly three times more likely to pass than children from state schools. In these tough economic times, lower income families who are, in May’s words, ‘just managing’, are highly unlikely to be able to afford the thousands of pounds involved in procuring such extra tuition or paying for a primary education, even if they should want to.

If you’re one of those families, if you’re just managing, I want to address you directly.

I know you’re working around the clock, I know you’re doing your best, and I know that sometimes life can be a struggle. The government I lead will be driven not by the interests of the privileged few, but by yours.

Nationally, grammar schools take a tiny percentage of children on free school meals. Most children at these schools are from more affluent homes. They receive a selective and socially segregated education paid for by the taxes of the less well-off.

We will do everything we can to give you more control over your lives. When we take the big calls, we’ll think not of the powerful, but you.


If the decision to build more grammar schools go ahead, thousands more children will face the ‘biggest call’ of their lives at the young age of ten or eleven. They will either fail to take, or take and fail, the 11+. Under such a high stakes system, the children of the powerful are clearly the most likely to succeed and the children of the powerless the most likely to fail. This will have not just educational, but human consequences.

As Joanne Bartley, a parent who opposes the 11+ in Kent, has said so eloquently, ‘ I think of the 11-plus division of people like this: for every one proud person believing they are cleverer than the rest, there are three people who are quiet, embarrassed, feeling stupid. Every time I hear someone say how fine grammar schools are, I think of the quiet people. Maybe you will consider them sometimes, too.’

When we pass new laws, we’ll listen not to the mighty but to you. When it comes to taxes, we’ll prioritise not the wealthy, but you. When it comes to opportunity, we won’t entrench the advantages of the fortunate few. We will do everything we can to help anybody, whatever your background, to go as far as your talents will take you.

Segregating children from different social backgrounds and ethnicities into different and unequally regarded schools restricts the opportunities and diminishes the confidence, often for life, of poorer children.

It priorities the wealthy – not you. It’s as simple as that.

We are living through an important moment in our country’s history. Following the referendum, we face a time of great national change.

And I know because we’re Great Britain, that we will rise to the challenge. As we leave the European Union, we will forge a bold new positive role for ourselves in the world, and we will make Britain a country that works not for a privileged few, but for every one of us.

Grammar schools were phased out from the 1960s onwards because thousands of parents, among them many Conservative voters, found it wholly unacceptable that their children should be judged failures before reaching puberty and sent to schools that were clearly considered second-class.

That will be the mission of the government I lead, and together we will build a better Britain.

If Theresa May follows through on this policy and re-instates a previously failed, deeply divisive education system her highly praised ‘one nation’ rhetoric on the steps of Downing Street will be revealed as a hollow sham.

On (not) being over the hill…..

“I no longer want what I used to want,” Marina Benjamin declares somewhere towards the end of her lucid and sophisticated exploration of what it means for a woman to turn 50 in a culture that glorifies youth and encourages us at every turn to “disguise … deny … disown” the process of ageing. Single-word chapter headings – Skin, Muscle, Guts, Spine – speak to her promise to bring “the body back into the frame at every turn”, although what she discusses roams far beyond and beneath the merely physical.

For Benjamin, the body is the first port of call in seeking understanding, and forcing brute truths on us. A hysterectomy in her late 40s propels her into “middle age all at once” – leaves her dry-haired and grey-skinned, an exhausted insomniac wandering the streets feeling herself to be in the “slipstream” of humanity. Her father’s death precipitates an extended period of frenetic exercise until injuries force her “to look elsewhere for survival techniques”, and the realisation that “mourning and ageing require a classier sort of attention”.

Benjamin finds no consolation in the popular “Fifty and fabulous!” genre of self-help books that mistake “morale boosting for genuine empowerment” and fail to distinguish “self-knowledge from self-satisfaction”. Despite having turned to oestrogen herself, she is scathing about the “blunt hammer of misogyny that taints the entire history of HRT”. Instead, she looks to literature, offering us a detailed reading of Edith Wharton’s underrated late novel Twilight Sleep, which predicted the “machine age” anxieties and scientific management of time that now besiege us all; she also admires the “absorbed coping” of the ever-inventive Colette in later life.

Benjamin’s central argument, that one must face loss and sadness – “the reconciliation of the ego to the true self, shadow-side and all” – in order to age authentically, seems right to me. But is it bracing honesty or a form of melancholy defeatism to casually describe 50 and beyond as “over the hill”? Older women may indeed turn to a more “generative” role, helping and guiding others, but there is a risk here of underplaying profound cultural, economic and political shifts that have led to a new wave of highly effective women in public life, including, quite possibly, a seventysomething female president of the United States.

For all its interesting examinations of the science, literature and psychology of mid-life, this is essentially a memoir, capturing the poignant changes in the relationships between Benjamin and, among others, her parents, peers and teenage daughter. When one of her closest friends, the academic and writer Kirsty Milne, is diagnosed with an aggressive form of lung cancer, dying just short of her 50th birthday, Benjamin is besieged by feelings of guilt, helplessness and confusion, acutely aware that she has the one thing her friend can no longer rely on: a future.

The Middlepause is a restrained but wonderful guide to the convulsive changes of 50 and over. Whether it is Benjamin’s observation that it’s “the nouns that go” in post-menopausal word blight or her evocation of the “old fever” of conventional ambition, this is a book that yields valuable insights on almost every page.

Jane Miller
 A subtle chronicler of our times … Jane Miller. Photograph: Graeme Robertson for the Guardian

Jane Miller, a former professor of education, author of several memoirs and explorations of feminism and education, is another refreshingly subtle chronicler of our times, although she did not become a journalist until she was 78, when she was asked to contribute a monthly column to In These Times, a leftwing political magazine based in Chicago.

Most of the pieces are on political or cultural topics, but, inevitably, themes of time and loss run through this volume, particularly given the recent death of “my witty, beautiful husband of nearly 60 years”, Karl Miller, the literary critic and founding editor of the London Review of Books.

There’s a lovely essay on the petty frustrations of life as an older carer. While her husband is visited by “old flames, old poets, old reviewers, old colleagues, old friends, young friends and relations”, one visitor observes to Jane that “Karl is not getting enough in the way of intellectual stimulation, and thought it fortunate that he had sons and plenty of male friends”.

When asked to write about the 2011 royal wedding, she thinks her American editor will want an anti-monarchy diatribe. Far from it, he is a “big proponent of monarchy … in a celebrity culture”. Miller is more gently sceptical of the institution, but describes her relief at getting out of one of the “Fuck the Royal Wedding” get-togethers put on by radical friends and spending a “happy morning watching … the carriages and clothes, hats and bishops” on television.

Formidably well connected as she is (Karl Marx, no less, helped her great-aunt Clara with her German homework), some of Miller’s celebrated friends make an appearance here. Seamus Heaney comes to her English class in a large London comprehensive to discuss his poem “Digging”, which the class had recently been set in an exam. In an interview with Eric Hobsbawm just before he died, the two old friends make connections between the Arab spring and the 1848 European revolutions, and discuss the imminent demise of capitalism.

Miller’s politics are firmly left of centre. She deplores the wreckage of state education and the NHS under recent governments, the decline of welfare and the rise of intrusive journalism, and cheers on Occupy and Jeremy Corbyn. But she also reads Tolstoy in Russian, reproves Hilary Mantel for supposedly being unkind to Kate Middleton, and beautifully captures the strangely euphoric day in 2014 on which family and friends scattered her husband’s ashes on a hillside south of Edinburgh.

This is a remarkable collection, a reflection not just of a later life well lived, but a distinct political and personal sensibility. Far from being “over the hill”, Miller is one of a growing and inspiring tribe of female elders who stand right on the peak, taking a wry, wise and witty view of all they survey.


This piece first appeared in the Guardian on June 23rd 2016