Tag Archives: Guardian

From the archive: A Class Act

He’s a good storyteller, Ambalavaner Sivanandan, and he tells a particularly good story about the Lost Missionary: a few years ago, a confused old man kept ringing the Institute of Race Relations, of which Sivanandan is the director, but nobody knew what he wanted. The caller muttered something about wanting to help people, to give aid to those in need, yet he was so obviously in need himself. Eventually out of pity, one of the staff invited him in.

The moment he walked into the room, Sivanandan strode towards him and warmly embraced him. “Of course, I recognised him immediately,” he says now. “He was a famous missionary who had done important anthropological work in India.” The story tells as much about the embracer as the embraced. There is the fact that Sivanandan immediately recognised a bowed-down old man for the noble human being he was. Then there is the instant recall of the content and significance of the missionary’s work, both practical and intellectual. Finally, there is Siva’s kindness – that simple embrace.

But the moral of this tale goes deeper. For it tells us something about a fraternity – not quite secret but never fully understood by those who judge success by material wealth or professional achievement – which devotes itself to the cause of others. There is nothing religious in Sivanandan’s value system, for his is a militant vocabulary of class and racial struggle, a political language inevitably more radical than the Christian’s. But that day the Lost Missionary came to the institute, both men recognised and appreciated a kindred spirit.

Here, all resemblances end. For if time has been cruel to, or at the very least neglectful of, many who dedicate themselves to the interests of others, it has been kind to Sivanandan, or Siva, as he is known to friends and enemies alike. He may not be as well known as many other post-war black intellectuals and activists, but later life has brought him recognition from a wider audience, praise from beyond the circle of the politically committed. Activist, speaker, essayist and latterly novelist, he is now considered one of the most powerful radical voices writing on race, politics, culture and class in Britain over the last 30 years.

Many of his essays are considered classics, from his loving, empirical account of post-war black politics, “From Resistance to Rebellion”, published in the early Thatcher era, to his more recent analyses of the labyrinthine workings of the new globalism.…

Grammar school plan makes Kent a national battleground


Sevenoaks in Kent, a quiet, affluent commuter town, is the most unlikely site for a teeming political drama. But as the county – and the country – waits for Nicky Morgan to make a final decision on whether to open the first “satellite” grammar school in 50 years, the profound political implications, either way, are beginning to sink in.

The original proposal, for a new co-educational annexe to the Weald of Kent girls’ grammar school in Tonbridge, a full 10 miles away, was rejected by Michael Gove in 2013 and a revised single-sex proposal submitted in November 2014. No one was surprised that the Conservative party fudged the issue in the runup to the general election. But nearly four months on, with no decision forthcoming, there is impatience on both sides, although Roger Gough, cabinet member for education at Kent county council, which is backing the plan, declares himself “hopeful”.

A government insider says: “The department knows it’s not watertight legally. They know it’s going to be subject to judicial review. My soundings suggest that they think they have, say, a 60% chance of winning. Essentially the decision is political.”

If the annexe is approved, it will open the floodgates to similar expansion plans from grammars from around the country. It will also mark a significant retreat from the Gove years, when there was a strong commitment to the principle of non-selective education and rejection of old-style Tory claims that grammar schools promote social mobility.

Gove’s departure, the regrouping of some backbench Tory MPs in defence of grammar education, and the fact that local MP Michael Fallon is in the cabinet, have shifted the balance of power within the party. It’s possible, says one policy expert, that a “few new grammars” are to be offered as a sop to rightwing backbenchers in the long-rumbling row over the European referendum. “Six months ago I’d have said that Gove settled the question of the grammars inside the Tory party and it wouldn’t come back. I was wrong”. However, if Morgan stays firm and rejects the proposal, it will “probably settle the question of the grammars for a generation. The government will make noises about legislation to allow new grammars but it will probably be like foxhunting. It will never happen.”

[wp-svg-icons icon=”camera-3″ wrap=”i”]  Mary Boyle, above, head of Knole academy, Sevenoaks, says: ‘An annexe is an outbuilding or a shed on the school property.…

Of smacking and schools; a story of odd class alliances in British politics.

How depressing that the debate on smacking children, like that of a woman’s right to choose and sex education ( which never seems to go away ) has reared its head once more. I was astonished, and somewhat appalled, to hear a discussion on the Today programme recently about whether poor children were becoming too ‘dependent’ on breakfast clubs. Jill Kirby, a commentator on Conservative Home, argued that schools should find out why families were not providing breakfast for their children and if so, what were they spending their money on/they should be called in to school to account for themselves and so on. But these are the Tory times we live in.

It makes for some odd alliances, as Zoe Williams cannily identified in today’s G2. Liberals – who take a clear position against smacking children, on the grounds that it is ..er wrong, and violent, and a poor role model for human behaviour etc – find themselves caught in a pincer movement between some black and working class parents who advocate stern discipline and an upper class tendency to advocate corporal punishment. So the liberal looks stupid and ineffectual and soft and not understanding of poverty and its implications and a threat to authority…all of that, rolled into one, while the working class/upper class alliance seem to stand united in defence of stern authority and high standards.

This strange, and often disingenuous, class collaboration has resonance for the schools debate as well. Here, too, we see the odd conflation of different positions/perspective. So, the current government – here, representing upper middle class support of the striking inequality in our school system – encouraging families with absolutely no access to the expensive schools to which they send their own offspring, to abandon the idea of high quality universal education, in favour of quasi private schools that will either benefit largely the affluent – Bristol Free School is probably the clearest current example – or will provide such a diluted version of ‘an education’ that no upper middle class family would ever dream of setting foot in them, let alone using them for their own child.

In the middle, the ‘liberal’ or social democratic position, which argues for a coherent tax payer funded system for quality, universal education – ensuring equal access for the poorest as well as the children from the richest homes – is relentlessly mis represented and traduced as a soft option, deliberately designed to foster low educational standards and poor discipline/boundaries despite the contrary evidence of those countries that have consistently and intelligently invested in universal state education.…

School Wars: round up of the reaction so far…………

  Check our some of the reviews/interviews and book related features of the past few weeks. 

Andy Beckett in the Guardian:http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/sep/01/school-wars-melissa-benn-review

Anthony Seldon in the Observer; http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2011/sep/04/school-wars-education-benn-review

Phil Beadle in the Independent: http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/reviews/school-wars-the-battle-for-britains-education-by-melissa-benn-2351229.html

Francis Beckett in The New Statesman: http://www.newstatesman.com/non-fiction/2011/09/education-benn-labour-children

Neil Fletcher in The Camden New Journal: http://www.camdennewjournal.com/reviews/books/2011/sep/books-review-school-wars-battle-britains-education-melissa-benn

Lucy Sherriff interview in Huffington Post: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2011/08/27/melissa-benn-free-schools-and-education_n_938872.html

Terry Wrigley in Socialist Review: http://www.socialistreview.org.uk/article.php?articlenumber=11793

Sadie Robinson interview in Socialist Worker: http://www.socialistworker.co.uk/art.php?id=26186

Samira Shackle in The New Statesman: http://www.newstatesman.com/education/2011/10/school-wilshaw-mossbourne

Compass website, comment piece: http://www.compassonline.org.uk/news/item.asp?n=13796

Book related pieces in The Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/profile/melissabenn

Coming up: interviews and features in: Marianne ( French magazine), Epigram ( Bristol University student newspaper), The Richmond magazine, Red Pepper,  and Utdanning ( Norway’s chief educational journal)  and The Lady magazine. …

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.