About Melissa Benn

Author photos by Habie Schwarz

Melissa Benn comes from a long line of outspoken campaigners and prominent Parliamentarians. She was educated at Holland Park comprehensive and the London School of Economics where she graduated with a First in History, the first woman in a generation to do so.

From the age of six, Melissa knew that she wanted to be a writer; from her late teens, she knew that she wanted to write fiction and write about politics. She has never wavered in that ambition.  After leaving university, she worked for Liberty (then, the National Council for Civil Liberties), the Open University, Women in Prison and the London magazine City Limits.  Since then, she has worked as a freelance journalist, researcher and lecturer, work that supports her long-form writing.  For several years, she was a Master tutor in journalism at City University and in recent years has worked as a tutor at West Dene college and the Arvon Foundation, and also offers writing and editorial support on an occasional private basis.

As a freelance writer, her journalism has appeared in a wide range of publications, including the Independent, the Times, Public Finance, Marxism Today, London Review of Books, Cosmopolitan and the Financial Times. She is a regular contributor to the Guardian, the New Statesman, Mslexia and Teach Secondary magazine, where she writes a regular column. Her essays have appeared in Storia, Feminist Review, Women: A Cultural Review, Race and Class, Forum, The Political Quarterly and in several collections of essays including Feminism and Censorship (Prism), Moving Targets:Women, Murder and Representation (Virago), New Gender Agenda (IPPR) and Women of the Revolution: Forty Years of Feminism (Guardian Books).

Melissa has published nine books, including two novels. Her first novel, Public Lives (Hamish Hamilton, 1994) was described by writer Margaret Forster as remarkably sophisticatedfor a first piece of long fiction. One of Us (Chatto and Windus, 2008)  was widely praised and shortlisted for a British Book Award in 2008. It was described by the novelist Sara Paretsky as an ‘insider look at politics and power but a heartbreaking novel in its own right.’

A committed feminist since her early teens, Melissa has published a number of shorter and longer works on the shifting pressures, expanding possibilities and enduring burdens of women’s lives. Her books on these themes include Madonna and Child: Towards A New Politics of Motherhood (Jonathan Cape 1998) described by Catherine Lockerbie in the Scotsman as a ‘warm compassionate and unfailingly intelligent’ study of contemporary motherhood.  This was followed, a decade and a half later, by What Should We Tell Our Daughters? The Pleasures and Pressures of Growing Up Female (John Murray 2013), an exploration of young womens lives from the perspective of a feminist and mother in mid-life, which was shortlisted for a Politicos Book of the Year in 2014 and described by one blogger as ‘A Bible for any young woman who has doubted herself, any brilliant mind who has ever felt unworthy..’

In her writing on education, Melissa has consistently tried to tackle contemporary myths about state education and to set out the case for a more equal system.  With Fiona Millar she co-authored A Comprehensive Future: Quality and Equality For All Our Children (Compass 2006) an influential pamphlet that challenged the drift towards the marketisation of state education within the then New Labour government and put the case for strong, non-selective, community schools.

This was followed by School Wars: The Battle for Britain’s Education (Verso, 2011) described by the Observer as a tremendous book. In it, Melissa sketched the history of, and struggles around, secondary education from the post-war period onward and offered a critique of the education policies of successive governments, in particular the Coalition government of 2010-2015. With Janet Downs, she co-authored, The Truth About Our Schools: Exposing the Myths, Exploring the Evidence ( Routledge 2013) which tackled some increasingly prevalent and pernicious myths about state education. Caroline Lucas MP described it as a  ‘hugely important book that should be required reading for every Education Secretary.’   

Life Lessons: The Case for a National Education Service (Verso, 2018) set out a route map for educational change, and was described by Guardian Education columnist  Fiona Millar as ‘an eloquent and much needed blueprint for reform when radical ideas are in short supply.’  The Guardian published a chapter of the book as one of its Long Reads.

A political campaigner all her adult life, Melissa was a founder member of the  Local Schools Network and was chair of Comprehensive Future, an all-party group committed to the phasing out of the 11 plus and fair school admissions, from 2014-2018. In 2012, she won the Fred and Anne Jarvis award for her exemplary advocacy of high-quality comprehensive education.

She is a member of the board of Forum, the academic journal promoting 3-19 comprehensive education. In 2019 she was appointed to the Centenary Commission on Adult Education, which published its report in 2020. She is a founder member of Private School Policy Reform.

Melissa is a regular speaker, debater and broadcaster. A frequent key note invitee, she has addressed a wide variety of audiences, here and abroad, on the themes reflected in her journalism and books. She has written and presented several Radio Four programmes and has been a guest on the Today programme, Womans Hour, PM, Newsnight, Saturday Live, A Good Read, Richard and Judy, the Sky Book Show and Sky news. She was one of several writers featured in a one hour special on the representation of politics in the arts and fiction on Radio Four presented by Mark Lawson, has been a guest several times on the hugely popular Reasons to be Cheerful Podcast and was recently interviewed by Steve Richards for his Radio Four series The Corbyn Story.

Melissa has appeared at the Hay, Edinburgh, Bath and Cheltenham literary festivals, among many others. In 2015 she was a judge for the David Cohen prize, a biennial prize, awarded in recognition of an individual’s lifetime achievement in literature.   As a long standing patron of the Cambridge Literary Festival, Melissa has interviewed, and taken part in conversations with, a host of contemporary authors and high profile political figures including Ed Miliband, Professor Alison Wolf, ex Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow, the biographer Rachel Holmes and the spectacularly creative anti-Brexit lobby group Led by Donkeys.

Melissa lives in London, and is currently working on a number of personal essays and a study (for Reaktion Books) of the ways in which key political moments, and movements, have been represented in English language fiction, and the interplay between political ideas and cultural forms.