Author Archives: Melissa Benn

A Cold War Tragedy

A Cold War Tragedy

Melissa will be in conversation with Anne Sebba about her new book, ‘Ethel Rosenberg – A Cold War Tragedy.’

Weds 15th September 2021, 5-6pm, in the Robert Graves Tent at the Wimbledon Book Festival.

More information here.


In conversation with Ed Miliband

Inspired and informed by his hugely popular podcast, Reasons to be Cheerful, Ed Miliband’s new book, Go Big: How To Fix Our World, shows us that whilst the challenges we face as a society are daunting, solutions to them already exist. This empowering, uplifting set of practical and transformative solutions – from a citizens’ assembly in Mongolia to the UK’s largest cycle network in Greater Manchester –sees Miliband draw from the most imaginative and ambitious of ideas to provide a vision for how to remake society.

Book here…

Levelling up: Histories, Cultures, Challenges

Melissa Benn will be taking part in this discussion on May 17th 17:30 pm – 19:00 pm

Online-via Zoom: book via this link

The government’s ‘Levelling Up’ agenda comes at a time when Covid has revealed, and often increased, existing structural inequalities in the UK. These range from employment to housing, and education to healthcare. They include regional disparities in wealth, widening gaps in life expectancy across ethnicity, and uneven access to resources from libraries to leisure centres. What might a cultural history of Levelling Up tell us about the new political narratives being shaped around this agenda? How might the government’s emphasis on ‘stronger towns’ rebalance our economic map of the UK? What might a level playing field look like in terms schooling, accommodation, or wellbeing? What does ‘Levelling Up’ mean, and how will we know if it has succeeded? Drawing on a variety of disciplines, methods, places, and possibilities, this online forum will include new perspectives from Whitehall and town halls, offer provocations from the education sector to the NHS, and consider the role of researchers, policy-makers and communities in addressing these challenges.

This event will be hosted by History & Policy and the Centre for the History of People, Place and Community at the Institute for Historical Research, and the University of Southampton Institute for Arts and Humanities. The seminar format will include micro-presentations from a range of perspectives and disciplines across policy and research, Q&A and discussion.

Speakers include:

Melissa Benn, Writer and Campaigner Andrew Haldane, Chief Economist, Bank of England Will Jennings, Director, Centre for Towns; Professor of Political Science and Public Policy, University of Southampton Owain Lloyd James, Head of Places Strategy, Historic England Helen Nicholson, Professor of Theatre and Performance, Royal Holloway, University of London & Jenny Hughes, Professor in Drama, University of Manchester Simon Szreter, Professor of History and Public Policy, University of Cambridge Jonathan Gross, Lecturer in Culture, Media & Creative Industries, King’s College London


Putting the special back into special needs.

I can still vividly remember Michael Gove’s first speech to the House of Commons as Secretary of State for Education in 2010. A blast of oratory in which he charged the outgoing New Labour government of failing poor children with talent.

During Labour’s 13 years in office, Gove thundered, on average only 45 children on free school meals had won a place at Oxford or Cambridge – a ‘shameful record’.

In the decade since then, this theme of social mobility has continued to dominate public and political debates regarding the success, or otherwise, of our school system.

But what about the educational experiences of the many hundreds and thousands of young people not considered conventional ‘winners’, particularly those with SEND? Here, the debates become rather more muted and evasive.

Most politicians talk the talk of inclusion, but their rhetoric sits uneasily with the decade-long drive to increase exam results come what may, and the overhaul of SEND funding that took place in 2014 amid the swingeing cuts of the austerity years.

Things have worsened still in the wake of COVID-19. A recent poll of a thousand parents highlighted a ‘widespread failure’ to restore SEND provision when children returned to school in September 2020, leaving a ‘sizeable’ proportion of SEND children unable to return to school at all.

Yet there are some bright spots on the horizon. The issue of SEND provision in English schools is increasingly coming under the spotlight, thanks to a form of parental campaigning that’s much louder than before, more effective and better at shaping the debate and shaming policymakers.

In 2018/19, the Education Select Committee looked at SEND provision in what was one of the longest and most wide-ranging inquiries ever undertaken by a Select Committee, receiving over 700 submissions in the process.

According to Committee Chair Robert Halfon, the resulting report showed up how, “Families continue to face a treacle of bureaucracy, a postcode lottery of provision, buck-passing and confusion in a system that breeds conflict.”

Another new book Young People on the Margins, edited by Loic Menzies and Sam Baars from the Centre for Education and Youth ( my review to be published soon) highlights six discrete categories of students, including those with special needs, who have been marginalised over the past decades: their specific needs and circumstances misunderstood or neglected by a system needing to prove its ‘high standards’ in narrow terms.

But we mustn’t forget those on the frontline – the skilled and experienced practitioners continually developing new approaches to learning.…

Melissa Benn in zoom-free conversation with John Bercow

Saturday 24 April 2021 | 11:15am

Order! Order! Former Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, talks candidly about his no-holds barred memoir Unspeakable with Melissa Benn. This event will be filmed in London in the days before it is shown on-line – so no zoomy-ness involved, just real people in real conversation. But John Bercow will be available at the time of transmission to answer people’s questions arising from the discussion.

Book here: £6.00 – Single event ticket £35.00 – £50.00 – Festival Pass


Natural Born Rebel

History loves nothing more than a beautiful heroine battling for a just cause. For the past 100 years, Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst have been fixed in the collective mind as glamorous symbols of the protracted struggle for votes for women. In contrast, Sylvia, the second daughter of this remarkable family, remains, according to Rachel Holmes, “one of the greatest unsung political figures of the 20th century” – a marked failure of public recognition that Holmes hopes to correct in this exhaustively researched and deeply sympathetic study of a unique life.

It is not hard to see why it has taken Sylvia so long to emerge from the shadow of her mother and sister. There was nothing fashionable about her; friend and foe alike commented on her inattention to matters of appearance (she thought lipstick an abomination). And, while Sylvia arguably gave as much, if not more, to the fight for women’s suffrage as her mother and sister, once that struggle was finished, if not completely won (full adult female suffrage was not granted in the UK until 1928), she never stopped resisting authority and fighting unpopular battles. While Emmeline and Christabel became supporters of the First World War and empire loyalists, Sylvia remained a socialist and a fierce opponent of colonialism, and the encroaching threat of fascism.

As the subtitle of this volume suggests, the tenor and tenacity of Sylvia’s public life might have been foreseen. Born in 1882, the second daughter of the radical barrister Richard Pankhurst and the fiery, implacable Emmeline, her early years were spent in an intensely political household, first in Manchester, then in London and then back in Manchester after the collapse of Emmeline’s ill-fated and poorly managed “art furniture” shop in Euston: a kind of utopian, feminine forerunner of Habitat. The Pankhurst home was filled with radical and revolutionary figures of the time, such as the Labour giant Keir Hardie, the Russian anarcho-communist Peter Kropotkin and the Indian nationalist leader Dadabhai Naoroji, the first Asian member of the House of Commons. (Tellingly, Holmes notes, Christabel later “edited out her family’s intimate friendships with revolutionaries and radicals”.)

To modern eyes, elements of the Pankhurst children’s upbringing seem unduly harsh. There were regular battles with both parents over food, and Sylvia was sometimes tied to the bedpost all day for refusing to take cod-liver oil; the introspective, dreamy young girl “could not curb her will to resist”.…

How the UK government is ‘settling scores’ with unions by axing crucial union learning fund

Ann McKelvey enjoys her job as a cover supervisor at the Co-op academy, a secondary school in Leeds. She loves the school, where she has been since 2013, and working with young people, but deep down she has always wanted to be a teacher. “The problem was I didn’t have A-levels,” she says. “And I suffered from impostor syndrome, always coming up with 101 reasons why I couldn’t achieve what I wanted to.”

Everything changed in 2016, when McKelvey was offered the chance to do a literacy taster course called Return to Learn, provided by her union, Unison, in conjunction with the union learning fund (ULF), a national government-funded partnership between unions and employers. “I really enjoyed it,” says McKelvey. “The tutor hadn’t gone to university until he was 40. I looked at him and thought, ‘Well, he’s been there, done it’. That inspired me to think I could do the same.”

McKelvey took a foundation course in special educational needs, an area of particular interest, and is now studying for a degree at Leeds University one day a week, and working for the other four. She has a clear goal in sight: to become a teacher at the school where she works.

“If I hadn’t done that first course, I wouldn’t have gone on to develop as I have, or do my degree,” she says. “I now have a vision of what I want to achieve, and how to get there.”

Chris Gurdev, 37, has an equally inspiring story. In his late twenties, he was working as an assistant manager at the Sunbury-on-Thames branch of the Yorkshire building society. Learn representatives, and Aegis, his union, encouraged him to take courses in leadership and management and, with his employer, to practise these skills at work and in the community.

Eventually he became a chartered member and fellow of the Chartered Management Institute. He now works as a skills coach for Oxford Applied Training, a job he speaks of with passion. “I never thought I would be where I am now. If it wasn’t for ULF, I wouldn’t be able to do what I love.”

McKelvey and Gurdev are among the quarter of a million men and women who have benefited every year from the ULF, established in 1998 to provide courses in partnership between employers and unions, and supported by government ever since.

But successes like theirs may soon be a thing of the past.…

Ruskin College appearance

Ruskin College appearance

Melissa will be a guest speaker at a special Friends of Ruskin College, Birthday Celebration Online event, on Monday February 22nd at 6.30pm.

Details here.…

Malvern appearance

Malvern appearance

Melissa will be interviewing Rachel Holmes about her biography of the formidable suffragette and lifelong socialist Sylvia Pankhurst at the Malvern Festival of Ideas on Saturday March 6th at 10-11am.

Details here.…

From the archive: the truth about (many) writers’ incomes

This piece was first published in Mslexia magazine in March 2017, but it is still relevant today. Click on the link below to read it.


Latest writing


The crisis of the meritocracy: Britain’s transition to mass education since the Second World War


Oxford: Oxford University Press

361pp, hardback, £25, ISBN 9780198840145

Cambridge historian Peter Mandler has a fundamentally optimistic story to tell about the growth of universal education in Britain over the last seventy years and one can sense his stubborn resistance to any more sceptical interpretation on almost every page of this dense and impressive history. Since the close of the ‘people’s war’ in 1945, Mandler argues, we have witnessed the rise of mass education, initially at secondary level, and more recently in higher education where participation rates currently nudge New Labour’s much vaunted promise of 50 per cent. Contrary to established narratives that have put this development down to economic growth or significant pieces of legislation, Mandler identifies the expansion of educational opportunity as the result of a constantly shifting interplay of demand and supply that has reinforced ‘the deepening compact between the individual citizen and the state which came with formal democracy and the idea of equal citizenship’. Education continues to be seen by the public as one of the ‘decencies’ of life’; hence the inexorable rise in demand for what Mandler often refers to as ‘more and better’.

In short, the people (sort of) did it themselves.

On the face of it, this is an attractive proposition, yet one that is oddly tricky to grapple with, given the mass of contradictory or partial information available to us concerning what the ‘people’ have wanted at any given historical moment or, indeed, who exactly the people are. Mandler deliberately employs ‘a promiscuous array of methods and sources’, sifting through realms of evidence from official publications, interviews, academic studies, pollsters’ findings and demographic surveys in an attempt to clarify the complex relationship between government policy, public demand and social change. This promiscuity encourages him to prosecute his subsidiary critique of the alleged tendency of academic disciplines to work in unhelpful silos. Economists and social scientists, he charges, have paid scant attention to educational expansion while educationists and political historians tend to ‘chop up long-term trends into short political segments’ with many on the left falling into a ‘declinist narrative’ in which the failures of a ‘divided’ Labour party feature heavily as a reason for a lack of genuine progress (an analysis Mandler anyway rejects). But we shall return to the problem of we whingeing progressives in a moment.…

Latest news & events

A Cold War Tragedy

Melissa will be in conversation with Anne Sebba about her new book, ‘Ethel Rosenberg – A Cold War Tragedy.’

Weds 15th September 2021, 5-6pm, in the Robert Graves Tent at the Wimbledon Book Festival.

More information here.