Below, a profile/interview in today’s Education Guardian by Peter Wilby.
Taking advantage of the net, and net democracy, I have put in a few corrections and some commentary at the bottom of the piece. Perhaps the Guardian or other newspapers might try this, in print and on line, sometime?
Keeping faith in comprehensives
Melissa Benn still believes the public can see the benefits of the classic comprehensive school system
Education has the potential to create a “common culture” according to Melissa Benn.
Britain doesn’t have many American-style political dynasties, but the Benns are an exception. Three generations have produced a cabinet minister apiece: Tony Benn, once the stuff of bourgeois nightmares but now an octogenarian “national treasure”, is the best-known and his son Hilary, a New Labour minister from 2001, is the most recent. And from the next generation, Emily Benn, Tony’s granddaughter, stood unsuccessfully, aged 20, as a Labour candidate in last year’s general election.
But there are other Benns keenly doing their bit for what are loosely called “progressive” causes. Among them is Melissa, Tony’s only daughter, one of our “leading feminist writers” (the Guardian’s description), a one-time assistant to Labour’s future deputy leader Harriet Harman at the National Council for Civil Liberties (now Liberty), a former Open University researcher on deaths in custody, and a founder of the Local Schools Network, which “celebrates and supports local schools”. Now 54, her latest contribution to the common welfare is School Wars: The Battle for Britain’s Education, published next week. (In the interests of full disclosure: she interviewed me for the book, and quotes me in it.)
No prizes for guessing which side she’s on in those wars. The book is a passionate defence of comprehensive schools and she doesn’t mean the allegedly non-selective academies, free schools, faith schools, trust schools and other varieties invented by successive governments. She’s a true believer in what New Labour airily dismissed as the “bog-standard” comprehensive. Benn prefers neighbourhood schools run by elected public authorities. She also favours mixed-ability teaching, though as a “compromise”, she’d reconcile herself to setting by subject after 14. She talks, as the pioneers of comprehensives did, about creating a “common culture” through education and asks, “how do we learn about others if we never come in contact with them?”
Is there any chance that this classic model of the comprehensive can come back? She replies that what “they” have set up will fail (she doesn’t say so, but I’d guess “they” means New Labour as well as the coalition government) and what she’s arguing for will, 20 or 30 years hence, emerge as the only alternative. “This whole shimmer of choice,” she continues, “it just confirms class hierarchies. In the early 21st century, we have something that increasingly looks like the set-up in the 19th century. The three biggest blocks to a fairer school system don’t involve genuine choice. Private schools obviously, because you can’t go if you can’t pay. Grammar schools are positively Orwellian: the state sorts children out and says where they should go. Faith schools: well, if you’re not a churchgoer, the only option is for deception.”
So she would deny choice to parents? “I don’t think we can any more just tell parents where to send their children. But we have to find a way to ensure that no school is stuck with the most disadvantaged. School admissions may be politically unsexy but they’re absolutely crucial.” All this is said with the expansive hand gestures characteristic of the family, and eyes trained slightly upwards into the middle distance, as though scanning anxiously for a vision of happy comprehensives where rich and poor learn to love and cherish each other.
But as Benn happily explains, her ideal school is on her doorstep, in the socially and ethnically mixed area of north London where she lives with her husband, a psychotherapist, and daughters, aged 14 and 17. “We didn’t decide to live according to the availability of local schools. But we went to see the local primary and we thought it was great. Secondary school was more of a decision. Our nearest school, Queens Park, 20 minutes walk away, was not, to put it crudely, the one the middle-classes were sending their children to. But a group of parents, whose children were about two years ahead of ours, got together and said, if we all support this school, we can be part of changing it. We were lucky. It is a really good example of a hard-working, creative local school. Results have gone up and up. It so annoys me that schools like that are routinely denigrated.”
Ofsted reports confirm that Queens Park has been improving since the early 2000s. It has almost equal numbers of white, black and Asian children (white British account for under 20% of pupils), an above-average proportion on free school meals, and lower than average attainment levels on entry. Has Benn used private tutors? “Ah, I woke up this morning and thought: he’ll ask me about private tutoring. Well, a bit of help a couple of times when exams were coming up, but we’re not running a complete parallel system. There’s no denying that parents like ourselves can help our children, but I also bring that helpful practice to the school, running workshops and so on.”
Her own education was a different matter. Strange as it may now seem, Labour frontbenchers, if they could afford it, once sent their children to private schools without significant comment from either press or party. The Benns, with money on both sides of the family, enrolled Melissa at Norland Place, an expensive London preparatory school later attended by George Osborne. But when she was seven, she and her two elder brothers were switched to the state sector. Oddly, her name was still put down for the posh, fee-charging St Paul’s girls’ school because, she says, “there was a tremendous nervousness, not from my parents but from the world they lived in, grandparents and so on, about what they’d done and so they wanted reassurance that I was keeping up academically”. A place was offered but rejected. Melissa, like her three brothers, went instead to Holland Park comprehensive, close to the family home in west London.
It became known as “the socialist Eton” because so many prominent leftwing figures, including Tony Benn’s cabinet colleague Roy Jenkins, sent their children there. After starting with the trappings of a grammar school, including teachers in gowns, it threw out uniform and other traditions and embraced mixed-ability teaching, then very rare. “It was a very creative and exciting time,” says Benn. “I really, really enjoyed school.” But she adds: “There were elements that, as a parent, I wouldn’t have been happy with. I didn’t feel unsafe exactly but I knew there were certain toilets I shouldn’t go into, and there were pockets of disorder, things that frightened me, skinheads, gangs and so on. As a parent, you have to be in favour of order. On discipline, I think the right is on to something.”
As Benn’s father became more prominent, emerging as a leader of the Labour left, media interest and hostility grew. She recalls a forest of photographers as she stepped out of the house and being followed as she walked to school. “The children’s lives were scarred,” her father once said. Her late mother, Caroline, took it particularly badly and, though a knowledgeable and articulate pro-comprehensive campaigner – she co-wrote two exhaustively researched studies of the schools – could scarcely bear to speak even to sympathetic broadsheet journalists.
The family wariness of the media remains. Benn says she always wanted to be a writer, composing her first story at six, a novel shortly afterwards and a play about resistance fighters “when I was nine or 10”. She eventually worked at the radical magazine City Limits and contributed freelance features and reviews to the Guardian, New Statesman and Independent. But, she says, “I have never felt fully comfortable in the media world, it has taken time for me to learn to inhabit it in my own way.” She has written two novels that explore the uneasy relationship between the public and private lives of politicians and the media’s role in it.
Benn believes the British public can still be persuaded to view a truly comprehensive state education service with the affection it has for the health service. “Education’s problems go back to 1944. The NHS became a symbol of common citizenship but education couldn’t because it divided 20% of the population from the other 80%. Ed Miliband recently talked of the things that bind us together, but he didn’t mention schools. People are always talking about the importance of churches, post offices and pubs to communities, but not about schools. If we make the political weather, we can change that.”
Melissa Benn’s book School Wars is published on 5 September by Verso Books
Corrections and commentary:
I never worked for Harriet Harman, Holland Park was not remotely like Eton and I did not write a novel in primary school.( I was 12 years old, it was a potboiler of a book, and this has reminded me to get it out the attic to show to my children) and I would never use the term ‘bog standard’ nor indeed classic comprehensive ( although it does have a certain modern appeal, like the Classic Coke.)
This, of course, is the substantive point. As I discussed at some length with Wilby, we have learned so much over the past forty plus years, when comprehensive reorganisation began, about what makes comprehensives work; the need for fair admissions is paramount, which inevitably entails phasing out selection within the system as a whole; there should be more choice within schools, to allow a broad and rich curriculum; resources are crucial, as are aesthetically pleasing buildings.
I develop many of these ideas at greater length in School Wars.