Finally, a “young lady” answers back…..

Below, a flavour of the kind of response I attract whenever I write any political piece, particularly about education. I will protect the privacy of the man who wrote it, who mounted a robust and highly personal defence of grammar schools, but I will take the liberty of quoting the more personal parts, that relate to me, of the beginning and end.

“Young lady, firstly, I will give you credit for at least adding your name to your article. You ma’am come from several generations of an aristocratic family. Not blessed with your easy life, I took my degree ( as a young adult.)…………Hopefully one day you will see the light of hard work, and life in the real world, where folk work hard to feed people like you…………”

Usually I am unable reply to these sorts of attacks/assumptions, largely because they are posted on public websites, but as the writer in question sent an e-mail to my personal address, I have the opportunity to reply, which I have done with great pleasure.

Below, my reply, in full, if slightly amended.

Dear Sir,

Firstly apologies for the delay in replying to your e-mail but I have been away for work and have only recently returned.

Thanks so much for taking the trouble to write to me about my piece in the Guardian.

A few minor corrections first; sadly for myself, I am not a ‘young lady’ but a fifty two year old mother of two, author of five books, hundreds if not thousands of articles, speaker and broadcaster, the proud product of a comprehensive education, who has worked hard, to use your own term for a moment, for over thirty years.

Secondly, you identify me as part of an ‘ aristocratic’ lineage. Wrong, again. I come from a long line of public servants and politicians, of whom I am proud. …….

So, not a real aristocrat in sight, I’m afraid, not that that has stopped the press…….. from tarring one sort of critic of the established order with the brush of ‘inherited privilege’. Nor, may I say, has it stopped those, such as yourself, with an apparently good education, from grasping that this is the way that the media treat any serious critic of the status quo. It really pays off to read between the lines of much media coverage of education ( as of so much else.)

So – to the substance of your e-mail; the benefit of grammar schools to those from poor backgrounds. I have no doubt that grammar schools did take and, where they still exist, continue to take, a few children from genuinely low income backgrounds. But this immediately needs to be qualified by several important points:

Firstly, even if they did or continue to do so, this has not stopped the gross injustice of the eleven plus and secondary moderns which consign the 80% who fail this exam to a sense of failure that can persist for life and a (represents a) shameful waste of potential talent.

Secondly, as David Willetts, the Tory spokesman on education until spring 2007 pointed out, backed by masses of research, grammar schools tend to educate children from middle class backgrounds. Thus far from promoting social mobility, grammars are largely a route for the already well off who want a privileged education without having to pay for it as do some faith schools, who covertly select or ‘cream off’ the middle classes through their admissions systems.

Thirdly, the comprehensive system largely came into existence because so many middle class families, including many Tory voters, protested at the injustice of apparently deciding that children were first or second rate at the age of eleven. When she was secretary of state for education Margaret Thatcher was responsible for agreeing to the establishment of a large number of comprehensive schools.

For all these reasons, there is not a single political party, as I pointed out in my article, who now supports selection in theory, although all have continued to promote it in practice, largely because they fear the vested interests of the grammar schools, faith schools and of course the private sector and the powerful education lobby that surrounds these institutions.

At the same time, the best of the comprehensive model has proved itself more than adequate at educating children from all backgrounds. Modern comprehensives are very good at encouraging, and bringing on, every child, so that the most intellectual/brightest are stretched to their full ability, and those who are slower at learning are helped in every way.

I would be the first to say, there is a lot more to do. But it is the only equitable way forward, as even the Tory party now recognise, and the comprehensive is in in no way inimicable to intellectual quality.

I am sorry that you feel the need to couch your pro grammar school arguments in terms of personalised reproach of illusory figures ( such as myself) However, it is very important to point out that opponents of grammar schools, of which there are many, are not promoting foolish egalitarianism but putting a rational argument for a high quality modern system that might eventually break down the wasteful and morally bankrupt class divide that has bedevilled Britain for far too long, the legacy of which you so clearly demonstrate in your own short message to me.

Yours faithfully,

Melissa Benn.

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