All posts by melissabenn

Into the Lion’s Den


It is not often a committed advocate of comprehensive education is invited to address one of the country’s leading independent schools. But after a robust exchange at a conference between myself and the head of Westminster school, Patrick Derham, I was asked to speak to his students. Derham is one of a handful of independent school heads who grasps that something needs to change, though not quite in the way I am about to suggest to his students.

My chosen title is: What’s the problem with private education? It feels like a good time to enter the lion’s den and offer a strongly contrary view to the received wisdoms of this deeply Tory age in which the power of wealth and with it, private education, is as resonant and divisive as ever.

It was not always so. In the run-up to the 1944 Education Act, political leaders of all parties seriously debated, but ultimately rejected, the enfolding of the old public schools into the new structure of free secondary education. In the progressive 60s and 70s, schools such as Eton were considered both something of a joke and emblems of an outdated oppression, as symbolised by Lindsay Anderson’s explosive allegorical 1968 film, If. In 1973, Labour’s Roy Hattersley told prep school heads of the party’s “serious intention” to reduce and eventually abolish independent schools. It seemed logical to assume that the Berlin Wall separating private and state education would soon be dismantled.

How wrong could you be? As the Oxford historian David Kynaston, one of the most acute current critics of private education, observes: “Endless reports point to the privately educated stranglehold and the sheer disparity in life chances, but I’ve yet to see an editorial in a serious broadsheet, including the Guardian, or more than the occasional speech by a politician, that squarely confronts the issue.” He adds: “It is a sad shortfall in what is supposed to be a mature democracy.”

We have recently heard the now familiar arguments on this question from the Sutton Trust, social mobility tsar Alan Milburn, academic John Goldthorpe and Ofsted chief Sir Michael Wilshaw, while the Labour MP Dan Jarvis spoke recently of how “the daughter of a cleaner in … Kingstone, Barnsley, [should] have the same life chances as the son of a barrister in Kingston upon Thames.” Rousing stuff, but how likely is this to be achieved as long as a pupil at an expensive independent school has as much spent on their education in one year as the average UK citizen earns in total and a student at a state school outside London is educated on roughly £4,000 a year – about half a term’s fees at Westminster?

While the 700 or so pupils seat themselves in the body of Westminster Abbey, no less, to hear me, I am locked in vigorous disagreement with Derham: he is determined to put me straight on the perception of private education. (Mine is well out of date, apparently.) Certainly, Westminster is far from the Hogwarts image of old. It is more ethnically diverse and is co-educational in the sixth form. For all that, the grand public schools still offer, as in my father’s day (he was a Westminster pupil long ago) a smooth route to the top with yearly fees between £24,000 to £33,000 and the highest rates of acceptance to Oxbridge of any school in the country.

A key part of the elite product on offer, even to boarders born in Beijing, is familiarisation with the architecture and atmospheres of the English establishment, including regular services in the stained-glass glow of the abbey and the chance, today, to hear school musicians play the heart-stoppingly beautiful first movement of Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins in D minor, at which point I nearly lose my resolve.

I don’t want my speech to be just one more incantation of the injustices of our country’s shameful educational apartheid. I describe the interesting near misses of history, such as that pre-1944 possibility of reform, and more significant victories such as Finland’s astonishing decision in the 1970s to abolish all private and selective schools, thus creating one of the world’s finest and fairest education systems.

We have to find a new way through this old, old problem. Up to now, there have been two main paths to potential reform: outright abolition, as perennially called for by a few brave souls – the playwright Alan Bennett, for example – or the intermittent requests placed on the independent sector by nervous governments to do more to help state schools. Some private schools sponsor academies, although these experiments can have a whiff of patronage about them and have had very patchy results. Meanwhile, a few top private schools, such as Westminster, have backed highly selective sixth-form free schools, often at great cost to the public purse.

Serious attempts to claw back anomalous tax advantages from the independent sector have usually ended in failure. In 2011, the courts in effect returned to private schools the right to decide what constitutes “public benefit” in return for charitable status. In 2014, the then shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt was roundly criticised for daring to suggest the withdrawal of business-rate relief unless independent schools entered into a more meaningful partnerships with state schools.

But there is a third way. In Kynaston’s words, this is the “harder route to reform”: abolition of the fee-paying principle and integration of private schools into a national system. It is hard to imagine, in the current climate, any major party contemplating it. For all their supposed evangelism about educational inequality, the Tories have offered no serious challenge to private education: far from it. The whip hand only ever hovers over the underfunded and ever more demoralised state sector.

Labour, too, has shown little appetite for the fight in recent decades. But Jeremy Corbyn’s idea for a National Education Service provides a sound framework for a fundamental rethink. And political moods can change quickly.

As I tell the Westminster pupils, Finland teaches us significant lessons. Reformers need to build consensus for change across the political spectrum while resisting a return to the grammar/secondary modern divide as the price of integration. The very first thing Derham says to me as we file out: “You know you’d have to bring back selection?” But for someone like Kynaston this is “a second-order issue compared to the ending of fee-paying education.”

As for the pupils, my talk is met by what feels like a slightly tense silence. Most are rushing to classes but one boy thanks me for saying “really necessary things about the privilege in this place”. Later, both the head and chaplain send me courteous thank-you notes, indicating that I have stirred up a great deal of debate, and caused some students much “wrestling with the issue”.

What have I learned from this experience? That the next critic of private education to speak in any similar place should suggest a full-on debate, bringing in pupils from nearby state schools. Let the conversation begin.

A very English mess

Nice try, Nicky. Despite official efforts to bury the bad news of the  government’s major volte face on forced academisation under rolling election coverage, Morgan’s climbdown late last week has been widely publicised and celebrated by what had turned into a formidable array of opponents stretching right across the political spectrum.

In the end, Morgan dared not defy a handful of powerful Tory backbenchers or shire leaders – according to one, the government had simply ‘gone bonkers’ – implacably opposed to having their local power over education destroyed.

But there was a different sort of retreat, just as significant in its way, also at the end of the week.   Free school founder Toby Young, now stepping down as CEO of the West London Free School he set up in 2011,  has expressed regrets at his ‘arrogance’ on school reform in a Schools Week interview, in particular his criticism of other teachers, heads and local authorities. ‘I hadn’t grasped how difficult it is to do better.’

It appears that Young (who now claims that his remarks were taken out of context) has finally caught up with some of the more complex social and political reasons why so many local schools can’t keep pace with the rich, socially selective independent sector that he so admires.

For anyone who has crossed Young over the years, this was a bitter sweet moment ( my phone was buzzing all afternoon).  Let’s not forget the huge part he played in undermining public and parental confidence in state education, particularly non-selective schools,  during the early years of the Coalition which led some commentators seriously to suggest that critics of free schools were ‘actively evil.’

It all feels like another age now. Both Morgan and Young’s retreats signal one more important staging post in the fast diminishing credibility of the school reforms unleashed by the Tories after 2010. If Gove brought an intellectual energy and spurious coherence to a fundamentally flawed project, Morgan embodies the rabbit-caught-in-headlights nervousness of someone placed in charge of a convoy of rackety vehicles that now threatens to veer out of control.

Huge change has been forced through our system at all levels on scant evidence and even less meaningful consultation. There is no substantive proof that academisation is the answer to improved school performance and I don’t know anyone who still argues that  free schools remain a vehicle for meaningful parental involvement.Young himself, an exceptionally well -networked figure in Tory circles, was always an outlier.  Most new free schools are set up by existing chains or groups.

The once alluring mantra of choice and competition,  kick started by the Tories in the late 1980s rings hollow under a government characterised by a crass, heavy handed centralism on everything from school structures to refashioning the curriculum, but an administration not centralised (or merely efficient) enough to avert the continuing crisis in school places, teacher recruitment and workload, or sort out an increasingly rogue school admissions system.

We are left, for the moment, with a typical English mess. The government is still committed, in theory, to an all academy system by 2022 and pledged to force  immediate conversion on on those schools that don’t meet rigidly prescribed bench marks. Given that it’s largely schools in poorer areas serving poorer children that fail to make the often unrealistic grade,  look out for a return of partisan, and now revengeful, rhetoric about ‘under performing’ Labour local authorities.

English education will continue to be split, and run,  along parallel lines: those still working under the often loose aegis of the local authority ( still 74% of all schools),  and academies, most of these now in chains or herded into Multi Academy Trusts ( MATs), all under the notional supervision of the newly created somewhat mysterious and undemocratic figures, Regional School Commissioners.

Meanwhile, Morgan’s disastrous decision to agree an annex to a Kent grammar ( Gove turned the proposal down during his tenure in office) has, as predicted, let loose a flood of applications for expansion of grammars into previously non-selective areas, causing consternation within many communities, wanting further improvement in their local schools not a new, hugely divisive, tier of provision.

Morgan’s retreat on academisation will not, on the face of it, halt other reforms proposed in what some have suggested might be the ‘ most unpopular White Paper in living memory.’  According to a special report by the academic journal Forum, proposals in the paper amount to the ‘continued refashioning of the whole school system’ including the dangerous atomisation of teacher training, increasingly hierarchical schools and a continuing degrading of democratic accountability.

There remain, then, plenty of really important battles still to fight. And new ideas to develop.

All this poses an interesting dilemma for Labour. On the one hand, there is clearly widespread hunger, if not desperation, for an alternative vision in education. ‘High expectations’ yes , but within a pragmatically oriented, well resourced, well supported system, with light touch democratic accountability.  On the other hand, most school leaders and teachers are depleted and demoralised. Too much change,  too many changes of official mind.

Labour, who has scored some notable parliamentary successes in recent months,  is sensitive to this perceived need for politicians to press the pause button. But with four years still to go, the party would be wise to start widespread consultation on everything from reform of the curriculum, genuinely fair admissions and high quality teacher training.

After all, if politicians, past and present, had heeded educational professionals more and listened less to provocative and self-promoting figures like Toby Young, we might not have got into such a mess in the first place.

An edited version of this piece published in Guardian Comment on May 9 2016.

How to think about forgiveness in daily life


Marina Cantacuzino is telling me a story about two women, both of whom discovered that their partners were having affairs. For the first one – let’s call her Woman A – the infidelity, says Cantacuzino, “was seen as the act of ultimate betrayal, which not only ended her marriage but for the past 30 years has been the defining, obsessional, story of her life.”

As a result, her children, whom she had roped into the bitter, protracted war against her husband, more or less lost contact with their father.

Woman B was equally devastated to discover her husband’s affair, which came to light through text messages sent accidentally to one of their children.

But, over time, she decided that “These things happen, she was not going to let it ruin her life. The affair had to stop but it wasn’t going to be the big defining moment for her family.”

Some years later it was, says Cantacuzino, “as if it had never happened. There was no residue.”

Bitter marital breakdown. Estranged siblings. Adult children who “divorce” their parents. Friends who never speak again. Such all too common stories are a testament to the challenge of forgiveness in everyday life.

Extremes apart, almost everyone has a tale of an unthinking comment or unkind act (or several) by a family member or friend that can never quite be thrown off.

At the same time, none of us wants to be one of those slightly sad people with a long, knotted tale of deep resentment that is hauled out at every occasion, often over a string of seemingly minor incidents going back years: that person with a powerful investment in telling the story only one way – our way. Cantacuzino seems like an excellent adjudicator of such thorny issues. A former journalist with a calm, non-judging presence (she is a practising Buddhist), she set up the Forgiveness Project 10 years ago. A charitable enterprise, it has explored, largely through vivid storytelling, the many ways in which individuals deal with major trauma such as murder, sexual violence or acts of terrorism.

Her years as a journalist speaking to people about “the smaller injustices of their personal lives” meant that when she started collecting forgiveness stories she was ‘‘keen to avoid the ‘smaller’ and more personal narratives and concentrate instead on the more extreme stuff. I wanted to be more serious and engaged politically.”

The Forgiveness Project has done some remarkable work, bringing together perpetrators and victims from just about every serious war zone and area of conflict in the world, including Northern Ireland, South Africa and Israel. Sometimes it has ventured into controversial territory, such as its decision to hold a discussion at the House of Commons between Brighton bomber Pat Magee and Jo Berry, the daughter of Sir Anthony Berry who was killed in the IRA attack on the Grand hotel on 12 October 1984, during the Conservative party conference.

Brighton bomber Patrick Magee and Jo Berry at a Forgiveness Project talk in parliament in 2009.
 Brighton bomber Patrick Magee and Jo Berry at a Forgiveness Project talk in parliament in 2009. Photograph: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

The project has also gone into British prisons, bringing victims of violence face to face with those who have committed similarly extreme acts. One of the most absorbing and remarkable debates I ever attended was a Forgiveness Project discussion between the businessman Will Riley whose house had been burgled and Peter Woolf, the career criminal and heroin addict, who broke into his home that night.

In recent years, Cantacuzino has been struck by the many parallels between the experience of severe trauma and that of the more mundane betrayals of daily life. Very often, one is wrapped inside the other, as in the case of Magdeline Makola, who in 2008 was kidnapped and locked in the boot of her car for 10 days but ended up feeling a greater anger with some of her friends – whom she claimed “were more interested in talking to the media than in my wellbeing” – than towards her brutal assailant.

Stories like these led Cantacuzino to fresh reflection on the difficulty – but vital importance – of thinking about forgiveness in ordinary life, and the charity is now broadening its work to look at more diverse, daily stories including those of medical mishaps and workplace conflict.

During our conversation, she mentions how much classic literature has the theme of forgiveness at its heart, from Middlemarch, in which George Eliot talks about “the hideous fettering of domestic hate”, to Anthony Trollope’s suitably entitled Can You Forgive Her?

Cantacuzino says, “Forgiveness is a nuanced thing. It’s a choice, a practice. In successful relationships, we’re probably doing it unconsciously on a daily basis. The English poet and philosopher David Whyte says, ‘All friendships of any length are based on a continued, mutual forgiveness.’ I love that quote!” She pauses, then laughs. “Or you could just call it, letting go of the rankle.”

Good word that, rankle.

So, I am curious to know, what makes the difference between a Woman A and Woman B? Is it age or experience – or are some things just hard-wired in our temperaments? (We often talk about a character as “proud” or “stubborn”, unsure whether to praise, pity or even decry such qualities.) And how much is it to do with the way we were brought up? Could we, should we, be raising forgiving children?

Cantacuzino says, “You would hope that age comes into it, that experience would make people realise that life isn’t black and white. But sometimes people get more stubborn and entrenched as they get older, and it’s harder for them to be flexible.”


Styles of parenting obviously exert a powerful influence. “Clearly the attitude with which you rear your children is going to affect them, although each of them will be very different people. My mother was a good forgiver. She always said sorry to us when we were children, and I think that’s fantastically important. Similarly, a parent who never says sorry can create a child who finds it hard to do the same.”

Children can also learn empathy, an important part of the forgiveness process, from their early years. “It’s often about being able to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. A forgiving person would think: could I be that person? Did I perhaps play some part in this dynamic?”

Often a turning point for a victim of serious crime can occur with a face-to-face meeting with the perpetrator, coming to see them as a vulnerable human being, which can be hugely liberating. But, of course, in family life or friendship, we know the other person only too well (or we think we do) and this, paradoxically, can make it harder.

Everyone who has thought deeply about these issues agrees on one thing: there is no easy, quick path. Sometimes the choice to forgive, whatever that means, will come only after a lot of inner turbulence. Cantacuzino believes, “Feelings of rage and revenge come from pain, so it’s important to feel the pain, to grieve deeply for a loss. Some people call this process Hate, Hurt, Heal.”

But isn’t anger or even hate sometimes a legitimate response? Cantacuzino tells me a story about a father who left all his money to just one of his three adult children, leaving the other siblings furious and the relationships fractured. I protest at the unfairness and she says, “Life is messy. Perhaps we do best not to have expectations, to not think that we are owed everything, even by our family. It’s really not black and white.”

In this case, the story has a happy ending. The sibling who was left the money decided to share it out in an “effort to repair the relationship”. But I am left feeling the “rankle” on her siblings’ behalf and a nagging worry that too much emphasis on inner emotional worlds could, in the wrong hands, lead the less powerful to reconcile themselves to injustice rather than seek resolution of a wrong.

Cantacuzino is keen to stress, “Forgiveness is not about condoning or excusing bad behaviour. Forgiving is a tool for dealing with pain, a decision not to perpetuate the cycle. Reconciling with the past allows you to look to the future. The single thing that most characterises people who have experienced forgiveness is this larger perspective.”

The American journalist Harriet Brown has written about how, after years of obsessively hating her mother, she came to understand that while she might still choose not to meet her mother, she could make that decision in a different spirit. “Forgiveness, I begin to see, is not about pretending you don’t feel angry or hurt. It’s about responding out of kindness rather than rage. Even toward someone who’s hurt you deeply.”

Cantacuzino echoes this sentiment: “Sometimes it’s about acknowledging the hurt and choosing to let go. A few years ago, I had a friendship that went wrong. I tried to put it right, probably too hard. In the end, I had to realise, people have a right not to be your friend. And you not to be theirs.

“Sometimes we just have to give in to broken relationships. The writer Sharon Salzberg rather brilliantly calls it ‘loosening the grip of fixation’.”

 The Forgiveness Project by Marina Cantacuzino is published by Jessica Kingsley, £8.99. To order a copy for £7.19, go to or call the Guardian Bookshop on 0330 333 6846


This piece was published in the Guardian on March 26 2016


Speech given at Westminster Abbey,  March 7 2016, to Westminster School.


Standing here in Westminster Abbey this morning, speaking to you, the pupils of Westminster School, it is only too easy to grasp the true meaning of educational privilege.

The beauty of these buildings, the dizzying proximity to power and real influence – just across the road!

An education at Westminster school will surely offer each of you myriad opportunities,  access to influential networks and significant career advantage  –   as the Sutton Trust report Leading People 2016 confirmed only last week.

I am also sure that you are all frequently reminded of how lucky you are – to be at a school where the amount spent on your individual education per year is near or well above what the average UK citizen earns in total.

But let’s reverse the accepted wisdom for a moment and imagine that what Westminster, and other schools like it, represent is a not an ideal or a model, to be replicated, but, in fact, a seemingly intractable problem.

For society

And possibly even for yourselves.

My father was educated here.  It was a very long time ago now.

But the path he followed, from Public School to Oxbridge to Parliament –  the classic establishment route –  has changed depressingly little over the past century.

As he got older, he came firmly to believe that not only did private education constitute a major barrier to a good schooling for all, but that it had in some ways limited his own social and intellectual understanding.

Indeed, he was intrigued by, and somewhat envious of,  the experience of those of his children and grandchildren who were educated, at local state schools,  alongside those of very different backgrounds.

There are many potential failings of a divided system –  even for its supposed beneficiaries:

To not recognise how much of one’s own achievements are down to good fortune rather than natural ability;

To learn how to mask, rather than grasp, our shared human vulnerability;

To develop unrealistic ambition or too narrow a definition of success;

To fail to understand the root motivations and meanings of the ‘lives of others’.

The writer and academic Lynsey Hanley, born on a council estate in Birmingham,  tell us how the educational divide looks from the other side,

how those from poorer backgrounds can be equally trapped by low expectations, few opportunities and a lack of networks.

In her brilliant forthcoming book Respectable: The Experience of Class, she writes that, ultimately, the most damaging  aspect of class is not money and power but the ‘combined forces of outright snobbery and tacit distinction…because they contribute to the undermining of self belief.’

So what to do?

We do not need to talk of the abolition of Westminster, Eton, Winchester, St Paul’s, Harrow and the rest.

The language of the bulldozer is not appropriate, especially when speaking about education.

The answer lies instead in integration: the creation of a national system of education in which places at a school like this are not –  as they are now – largely  determined by the size of the parental bank account.

There have been moments in our national history when such integration looked possible –  principally during and towards the end of the second world war.

There was, then, serious discussion about bringing the old public schools, much attacked for their weak performance in the pre-war period, into the new free state secondary education system set up under the 1944 Education Act.

Sadly, politicians of all parties ducked this important challenge, and our divided system continued.

Other countries have been bolder.

I am always inspired by the reforms that one small European country undertook, over forty years ago now, with dramatic results.

In the 1970s, Finland had a system very similar to our own today:  divided, hierarchical, grossly unequal in terms of the educational outcomes of rich and poor.

After much debate, and securing agreement right across the political spectrum, the Finns abolished all their private and selective schools.

In its place, they built up a richly creative comprehensive system that soon took Finland to the top of the international league tables, and considerably narrowing the educational gap between rich and poor.

Finland’s story shows that the leaders of a nation can take a cool, clear look at its own unequal structures, and create a consensus for fundamental change.

I am passionately committed to the creation of that consensus here in England, and the UK,  and cheered by the fact that some senior politicians from right to left now recognise that one of the most urgent problems in our society is educational inequality, which both creates and confirms broader inequalities.

Within the next generation, then, we will need figures with the vision and courage to carry on the struggle for a genuinely unified and high-quality school system.

Perhaps some of you will be among them.

I hope so.

Thank you.

Our Kids reveals American class inequality – which has all-too-evident parallels here

Robert D Putnam is that rare creature, a political scientist who has risen above specialism and skilful use of statistics to become the “poet laureate of civil society”. Since the publication in 2000 of Bowling Alone, which charted the weakening of social ties in modern America, he has been courted by civic and religious leaders, including Barack Obama. His latest book, Our Kids, has already inspired passionate essays by Francis Fukuyama, Ed Miliband and Tristram Hunt, each, tellingly, finding in Putnam’s research a subtly different message.

Our Kids is an absorbing sketch of the US in the 21st century, built on hundreds of ­interviews with families around the nation (most of which were conducted by Putnam’s research associate Jennifer M Silva) and employing a hefty range of empirical evidence. The book’s starting point is Putnam’s home town, Port Clinton in Ohio, which in the 1950s was a “passable embodiment of the American Dream”. Putnam is careful to acknowledge the racial and sexual prejudices of that era and to note: “Class differences were not absent . . . [but] those differences were muted.” For all that, Port Clinton was, he believes, a “site of extraordinary upward mobility . . . In the breadth and depth of the community support we enjoyed, we were rich, but we didn’t know it.”

Returning home more than half a century later, he finds the town to be a place of stark contrasts, a “poster child for the changes that have swept across America in the last several decades”. Our Kids charts the new divide, with the poor struggling to survive economically, educationally and emotionally, while the middle classes lead largely stable, prosperous lives.

Putnam touches on some striking features of the new inequality, from the rapid growth of a black and Latino middle class to how the better-off are more likely to be politically involved than their poor counterparts, who have become disengaged and distrusting. Although crime has fallen to near-record lows, there has been an exponential (and expensive) rise in imprisonment, particularly of black men, with catastrophic implications for the families left behind.

There is even a striking new divide in family relations. Among the middle classes, the 1950s model of stay-at-home mother and wage-earner father has given way to two graduate working parents, both highly involved with their children. Middle-class children enjoy every advantage: access to good schools, a broader range of extra-curricular activities, a wide net of parental contacts and even the social benefits of family dinners. (Dining together is a particular obsession of Putnam’s.) Intensive parenting has become the norm. As one middle-class father in Oregon says, “We ask more questions in a week than my parents probably asked in four years through high school.”

At the other end of the economic scale, low wages, unemployment, insecure housing and welfare cuts have fractured poorer families, often held together by a single parent or grandparent trying to keep the household safe in drug- and crime-ridden areas. Early deprivation lays the foundations for a lifetime of health and psychological problems, diminishing the development of important “executive functions” such as concentration and impulse control.

In the US, the decline of public education has had equally troubling effects. Putnam questions the efficacy of the charter school movement (the equivalent of the UK wave of academies and free schools) in bridging the gap. Exhorting “college for all” not only ignores the need for strong vocational education but often channels poorer students into lower-ranking colleges with higher dropout rates (and saddles them with continuing debt). He also states that equality of resourcing is not enough. The US should plough more resources into poorer districts and schools, something that the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has been arguing for years.

For UK readers, the parallel with our situation is easy to see, from the sharp decline of manufacturing, suppressed wages and increasingly segregated towns and cities to rising child poverty and the disingenuous insistence by the right on education as the main route out of poverty. We can recognise that the “ominous bass line” of our culture has been “the steady deterioration of the economic circumstances of lower-class families, especially compared to the expanding resources available to upper-class parents”.

Putnam risks conveying too binary a class divide but there is something refreshing in his insistence that society has created a considerably advantaged middle class – far from the gilded 1 per cent but not the tragically overburdened group so pitied by the Daily Mail. His insistence that the relatively well off have lost physical contact and human sympathy with the poor is a crucial insight for the political discussion of our attitudes to welfare, immigration and education.

Profound and unsparing as this book is, Putnam lacks big answers. A kind of deliberate ideological neutrality leaves him strong on description, weak on prescription. One can too easily imagine a David Cameron-type figure using Our Kids to make a daft, “nudge”-like proposal that welfare benefits be contingent on evidence that a claimant’s family eats together nightly.

The book points to the positive effects of public investment and social programmes of earlier decades (including a publicly funded school system) and even to the benefits of channelling cash directly to the poor. Yet Putnam’s final chapter shies away from suggesting any substantive or redistributive measures. Instead, he offers sensible, incremental reforms, from improving the availability of contraception and reducing prison sentences for non-violent crime to increasing investment in early education. Those who are after bolder solutions will need to look elsewhere.

Melissa Benn is the co-author of “The Truth About Our Schools” (Routledge)

Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis by Robert D Putnam is published by Simon & Schuster (400pp, £18.99)

Melissa Benn writes for the Guardian and other publications on social issues, particularly education. She is the author of several books of non-fiction and two novels, including One of Us (2008), and reviews books for the New Statesman.

This piece originally appeared in the New Statesman on Feb 24th 2016

Hold the front page! Tory peer offers ‘ringing endorsement’ of Tory school policies.

Some of you may have been a little puzzled by headlines yesterday, including in the Guardian, proclaiming ‘Soaring state schools threaten private sector.’ It is not often that a Guardian lead story risks sounding like a Tory press release or a Toby Young blog but, as I argue in a post on today’s Local Schools Network, this is certainly one report that begs rather more questions than it answers:
Who or what was the source of this lead story?
The chief source is the much quoted Ralph Lucas, owner of The Good Schools Guide ( available on subscription), the education bible of the upper-middle classes.
While many newspapers and the BBC report that Lucas is an Eton educated hereditary peer, fewer mention that he is a Conservative and that according to the UK Parliament website he is listed as a member of the Tory group in the Lords – a rather crucial omission given the underlying politics of the story. Henry Stewart of the Local Schools Network has written previously about the political leanings of the 12th Baron.
Which schools is Lucas talking about?
Safe to say that Lucas is not referring to schools in the AET chain, many of which have been recently criticised by Ofsted, nor indeed to some of the excellent comprehensives in impoverished areas around the country.
Media discussion of the new, improved state sector concentrates on those in wealthy, urban locations, such as my old school Holland Park or Toby Young’s West London Free School ( which has yet to produce a single set of GCSE results), schools which operate in highly favourable circumstances in relation to everything from admissions to resources to government support and, of course, media publicity.
Are private schools really on the run?
Soaring fees, in a time of austerity, have produced a lot of grumbling about the burden on parents who choose the private sector.
But this is nothing new. Exactly the same stories were run in 2009 but without the pro-government gloss.
Then as now, those private schools most affected are small and medium sized establishments outside London, forced or welcomed (take your pick) into the state sector under the free schools and academy programme.
Soaring fees have clearly not affected the sector as a whole, particularly at the elite end.
According to William Richardson, general secretary of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference, which represents leading independent schools, ‘pupil numbers are currently at record levels in private schools.’
Last May, the Independent Schools Council said 517,113 pupils were at UK independent schools, the highest level since records began 40 years ago.
Can the government really claim ‘soaring’ success for its schools policy?
Ralph Lucas is widely quoted as saying that he had been ‘put off sending his own children to the state sector in the 1980s after seeing pupils using drugs and fighting at state schools in west London.’
Leaving aside the fact that dinner- party-style anecdotes have no place in a front page news story, this was at the height of the Thatcher period, when resources and government support for state education was at an all time low, and most Tories wrote off comprehensive education asa form of impossibilist idealism, producing only mediocrity.
Historically speaking, the Tory Party is a truly shockingly late arrival to the idea that non-selective schools can succeed and the party currently risks returning us to the grim old days of widespread selection with its foolish plans to expand grammar school education.
Lucas does at least acknowledge that the belief in the potential of all children is the work of several generations. He also mentions the work of some genuinely innovative and inclusive local schools, such as Highbury Grove, led by Tom Sherrington.
Not surprisingly, the DFE has gleefully jumped on the Tory peer’s comments, claiming in yesterday’s paper that they are a ‘ringing endorsement’ of its policies.
In truth, they are a pure propaganda gift to government at a time when most agree that state education is facing a perfect storm in the face of a growing crisis of teacher retention, recruitment and demoralisation, impending funding cuts and widespread alienation as a result of a new, far narrower curriculum.

Under the hammer and sickle: David Aaronovitch’s Party Animals

Anyone brought up in a left-wing family gets used to a particular joshing, voyeuristic line of questioning (“I expect you spent your whole childhood on political marches”, “Did you call each other comrade?”). This is not just an everyday nosiness about an unconventional upbringing; at its worst, it can feel like a discomfiting, albeit disguised form of spite. The question is, in other words: what’s it like to have been raised in a family that had the idiocy or courage (take your pick) to believe it might be able to change the world?


So, one can imagine the glimmer in the publisher’s eye when the idea for this book was first mooted: an authentic portrait of a much-diminished species, the British communist, through the eyes of a red-diaper baby who grew up to be a Times columnist; a tale of quaint habits with serious questions at its heart (despite that corny subtitle echoing Gerald Durrell). According to Aaronovitch, Danny Finkelstein, the Tory peer and his colleague at the Times, keeps asking him when the book is going to be out, because “I want to understand why they did it”. There it goes again – that end-of-history smugness, that needling curiosity.

The trouble is that Aaronovitch knows too much and is, in his intelligent, irritable way, too interested in the multiple backstories involved to reduce his tale to one that will satisfy sceptical, bemused Middle England. Any half-decent account of British communism and the people who made it is bound to yield a long, tortuous, multilayered narrative, and this one is no exception, although it’s a story Aaronovitch never feels fully in charge of, in either theme or tone, for reasons that become clearer by the end.

As a result, Party Animals reads more like a series of extended columns on a number of loosely connected topics. No bad thing. There is a great deal of fascinating material along the way. So we are treated, inter alia, to an early set piece on the visit of Yuri Gagarin to England in 1961, one of the few times when communists were “once again, the people of the future . . . [and] briefly touched the golden face of fashion”; a short history of the rise of the Communist Party in Britain; an account of its relationship to Soviet communism; an anthropological look at the life and habits of CP activists; a long, excoriating feature on show trials of the 1950s; an intriguing case history of domestic political surveillance; and some highly entertaining stories about Aaronovitch’s early political and romantic adventures. The book concludes with an explosive final chapter on the author’s childhood which subtly affects our reading of all that has come before.

Children born in communist families often had a much tougher time of it than those of us who grew up on the left of the Labour Party, which has, for good or ill, always been more closely woven into mainstream British culture and conventions. The Communist Party of Great Britain had a “parallel history, a separate culture and argot, its own music, a distinct cosmology”, quite separate from ordinary concerns of ordinary Britons. (The 11-year-old David was upset he could not join the Cub Scouts; nor was he allowed to read the Beano because its publisher, D C Thomson, was non-union.) Life really did seem to be made up of branch meetings, demonstrations, folk music, rent strikes and party jumble sales. Aaronovitch’s patch of communist north London comes across as a genteel though ground-down sort of place (his family had a house but absolutely no money), with its own plumbers, builders, doctors and accountants – although, rather terrifyingly, Rose the dentist eschewed the use of anaesthetic.

Family life was correspondingly intense and deprived. David’s father, Sam, born into poverty in the East End, was a fierce, clever autodidact whose politics were forged by hatred of “fascism . . . hatred of capitalists who squeezed the blood out of [his] father and made Stepney the slum it is”. An early full-timer in the CP, a role in which he makes an unflattering fictional appearance in Doris Lessing’s Golden Notebook, he failed to win promotion in the party but went on to become a highly productive academic and writer. Like many other activists, Sam was rarely at home and the Aaronovitch children spent most of their time with their mother, the tragically overburdened Lavender, who came from a fractured bourgeois background, but who showed unbending loyalty to both her wandering husband and floundering party.

There is something fatally unresolved at the heart of Party Animals, and it turns on the question of political faith, good or bad. Several times Aaronovitch reminds us that CP members were at the forefront of anti-racist and feminist causes as well as the highly effective campaign against the appalling apartheid regime in South Africa. In a passage lambasting the likes of Roger Scruton, he asks: “If it was criminal to have been a believer in communism and an apologist for Russia, then why was it less criminal to have been a believer in colonialism and an apologist for racism?” Why indeed.

On the other hand, he is doggedly unforgiving on what the CPGB did or didn’t know about Stalinist outrages, though Eric Hobsbawm, the most magisterial of its intellectuals, escapes condemnation by virtue of both his experience of Nazi Germany and the rights afforded a world-class scholar charged with weighing up the relative costs of fascism and communism.

Less attractive is a kind of low-level sneering (I wish that wasn’t the apposite word, but it is) at the day-to-day work of the foot soldiers of British communism, with little interpretive charity shown to the context in which they operated, the language that they used, or their dogged commitment to social action. Even I could tell Danny Finkelstein why they “did it”. I could also tell him why so many of their causes and campaigns have changed the world for the better.

How much of Aaronovitch’s choleric anger at the left, his determination to establish the essentially self-deceiving nature of British socialism, is to do with his parents? To his credit, he tries to unpick the complex connections between personal and political emotions in his final chapter: to tell what he suggests might be the “real story”. We learn more of his parents’ relationship (Sam finally left Lavender after many years of infidelity), his mistrusting relationship with his mother, and his deeply unhappy adolescence, a story that includes compelling details of family therapy sessions sparked by his troubled teenage behaviour.

There are, then, two distinct stories pulsing through this book: that of Aaronovitch, and that of British communism, which deserves to be disentangled more clearly from the author’s complex past and psyche. Still, it is hard not to feel sorry for that clever, neglected young man whose communist childhood gave him an enviable and profound seriousness, but whose family life bequeathed him a fury that has too often been trained back – so publicly, so scathingly – on the left. Let’s hope Lord Finkelstein doesn’t take this story as typical of most left-wing families; it certainly isn’t. As Aaronovitch notes, many children from backgrounds similar to his had a much happier childhood; many have even continued to wage battles for justice in far kinder and more integrated ways.

Party Animals: My Family and Other Communists by David Aaronovitch is published by Jonathan Cape (304pp, £17.99)

This review first appeared in the New Statesman Jan 16 2016

What would Keir Hardie Say?

If a week is a long time in politics, a century can seem surprisingly short. With uncanny timing, the centenary of the death of Keir Hardie, Labour’s first leader and arguably its most towering figure, falls at the end of this month, on the very weekend that Labour delegates will gather in Brighton for this year’s annual conference, the first under the party’s new leader.

Hardie has long been claimed by all wings of the party. Possibly the most unlikely endorsement came from Peter Mandelson who suggested, back in 1992, that Hardie would have felt “rather pleased” with New Labour’s changes. In his failed bid for the Labour leadership in 2010, David Miliband made a far more cerebral case for Hardie as a self-help, rather than a statist, socialist. And earlier this summer, in this paper, Alan Johnson invoked the “pragmatism” of Labour’s first leader in support of the candidature of Yvette Cooper and New Labour’s record in office.

Read the rest of the piece here.

NB I am about to launch a new website later this month – please watch out for it.

Radio 4’s Two Rooms shows how Labour is getting it right

Last night I took part in BBC Radio 4’s soft focus pre-election programme Two Rooms, along with Fraser Nelson, editor of the Spectator ( which now, rather amusingly, calls itself ‘ the oldest continuously published magazine..’) The basic premise of the programme is that two groups of people – one broadly optimistic about their lives , one much less so – sit in two separate rooms debating the same issues. You could call it the Two Nations – Sort Of. Very post-ideological, very Radio 4.

In the first programme, which broadcast some moving stories of terrible poverty in Britain 2015, the Two Rooms talked about personal finance; last night the group discussed education and opportunity.

it was an interesting, if frustrating experience. (Recording took four hours – so the programme was heavily edited.) Many in Room A, to which I was assigned, were older and had come out into a (relatively) buoyant job market, where qualifications had some meaning and provided them with a ladder of opportunity. One participant had re-trained, via an access course, to become a physiotherapist. One quiet mid-life woman described how she had gone from her comprehensive to Cambridge, where she was very unhappy, but said that her education had opened up all sorts of opportunities as a result. There was only one privately educated person in the room. From Northern Ireland, he lacked the air of entitlement that so often surrounds his English counterparts.

What these stories showed, I argued, was the impact of recent, and often dramatic, cuts in everything from access courses to career guidance, not to mention well paying jobs; hence the experience of Room B, where those in possession of a degree could not even get any employment, even at the minimum wage. One younger member of Room A spoke at length, and very movingly, about how, at every stage of his life, it was the welfare state that had saved him: free secondary education, help with council housing and social services.

Interestingly, we were there to discuss education but hardly anyone mentioned it, except in the briefest and most personal terms (‘my history teacher really helped me’). There were few complaints about state schools and no mention at all of the last five years of upheaval in our schools under the Coalition. Nor, I am sad to say, did the Radio 4 include my report on the findings of a recent LSE/Manchester University study, by Dr Ruth Lupton among others, that the end result of the Coalition’s prolonged experiment in marketisation has been a marginal increase in the results of the brightest, and a corresponding dip in the results of children from more deprived families. After all that!

That the Coalition education revolution has spluttered to a halt was, however, reflected both in the quiescence and frustration of Both Rooms. Fraser Nelson, a Gove enthusiast, was keen to talk about the transformational impact of a good education, but the ordinary British citizens in Rooms A and B know better. They know that education alone, particularly in a grossly hierarchical system – and not just of schools, but increasingly of universities- cannot fix the problem of opportunity.

There was not a single mention of academies, free schools, bring-back-the-grammars………but plenty of talk about the injustice of unpaid internships, the way education is turning into a business, the need for properly paid work experience, and the need for expert personal and career guidance. Both rooms expressed emotions between dismay and disgust at the fact that a child from a private school has a 200 to 1 chance of getting into Oxbridge while a child at a state school has only a 2000 to 1 chance. A pity then that neither of the rooms came up with a proposal to abolish, or restrict state subsidy, of private schools.

How does any of this fit with the upcoming General Election? Education is proving a rather second order issue, as if the nation itself is worn out with Gove-ite exhortation. Apart from an increase in proper apprenticeships ( which all agreed upon), Fraser Nelson could only really come up with some very second order proposals, such as more speakers in schools, and internships for those from poorer families.

Nelson seems to think that if only the poor, benighted state school graduates could get access to the wonderful contacts and networks of the privately educated, all will be well. This seems to me a profound mis-reading of the way social networks, and privilege, work. It takes a lifetime of opportunity, support, second and third chances to create a Boris Johnson – not one shot at listening to the editor of Spectator at a lunchtime sixth form careers fair.

But if the political right have run out of meaningful answers for the problems of education and employment, something much more interesting is happening over in the progressive/Labour camp. Just this morning, Tristram Hunt announced a potentially exciting development in Labour policy that fits perfectly with the concerns expressed in Two Rooms.

Building on the slow, patient work of recent years, like the Heads Roundtable and the Husbands review, Labour have now come out strongly in favour of moving towards a baccalaureate structure for the 14-19 years, suggesting that they might eventually phase out GCSEs (no longer fit for modern purpose) in favour of a diploma style qualification that will embrace both vocational and academic pathways.

This modern, flexible structure will indeed provide those more vocationally oriented with a pathway to pursue but within the context of a good general education. Within this scheme, every student will have to continue with maths and English to 18, as well as develop certain personal skills and undertake an extended project. The Bacc structure offers a much more challenging and flexible programme of learning and is one that those in both Rooms A and B might have benefitted from, and would, I am sure, support.

Why bringing back grammar schools is not proving a popular idea……

A quick report on two successes for the comprehensive argument in recent student union debates.

The first was held on February 5th, at Manchester Debating Union, the largest student debating body in the country, where Professor Bernard Barker ( the first comprehensive student to go on to become the head of a comprehensive school) and I were arguing against Robert McCartney of the National Grammar Schools Association and Graham Brady MP on the motion: This House Supports the Re-Introduction of Grammar Schools.

After a heated, but largely good tempered, discussion, between panellists and from the floor, the motion was defeated. (Initial voting had suggested a narrow margin against the motion; we increased our share of the vote after the debate.) One of the key themes raised in this discussion was whether comprehensive schools produce good results – we argued that they certainly can – and, a slightly different point here, cater for really bright children? On the latter point, we heard anecdotes from either side of the argument. Robert McCartney tried to suggest that comprehensive education was based on sloppy, overly ‘progressive’ and child-centred ideas of teaching and learning. It seems that MDU agreed with us that Mr McCartney was behind the times on this issue.

For videos of all the contributions and further details of the debate itself, click on the MDU link above.

I took part in a similar debate at the Cambridge Union on February 19th. Here, our challenge was greater than it was in Manchester as voting at the beginning of the debate was in favour of the motion This House Would Re-introduce Grammar Schools; our job was to persuade the ‘House’ otherwise.

Cambridge Union is much more formal in atmosphere and structure; one can be interrupted, bar the first and last minute, at any point during one’s speech; most of the male debaters still wear formal dress, including bow ties; in short, it can feel like a rehearsal for life in the House of Commons or at the Bar ( although I understand the Oxford Union is even worse, in this respect..)

Our opponents were Robert McCartney (again), Andrew Shilling, a parent leading a campaign to set up a new/satellite grammar in Kent and Shaun Fenton, head of Reigate grammar, an independent school. Our side was represented by Michael Pyke of CASE, Ndidi Okesie, of Teach First and myself, recently elected Chair of Comprehensive Future.

A couple of action shots:


Again, we won this debate, quite decisively, with a swing of 33% in our favour.

In my view, this was due to two main elements. Firstly, even those arguing for the ‘reintroduction’ of grammar schools could not really justify the historic waste of talent and opportunity – ably elaborated by Michael Pyke – that resulted from the post war division between grammars and secondary moderns. The argument, on their side, seems to have shifted from the reintroduction of a mandatory 11 plus to the importance of offering an ‘academic’ education to a few (most of whom, judging on current figures, are likely to come from relatively affluent homes) with good comprehensives for the rest. (No-one uses the term ‘secondary moderns’ any more, for obvious reasons. ) The fact that you cannot have a grammar and comprehensive system running side by side cannot be stated too often.

Secondly, our side’s strength lay in our detailed exposition of the evidence of the slow and steady educational success brought about by comprehensive education in this country over the last fifty years, the fact that selection clearly harms the opportunities and achievements of poor children ( this argument was powerfully expressed by Ndidi Okozie) and that large parts of the Tory party now recognise that selection harms the majority. Finally, we have learned a great deal about what makes a good comprehensive system, and school, over the last fifty years, leading to some examples of stunning schools around the country, and particularly in poorer areas.

For all these reasons ( and more) there is now a broad cross-party consensus that non selective schools – a good local school for all – is the only rational principle on which to run a state education system and that it would be fatal to return to a damaging and divisive system of old.

Reader, they agreed with us.