Learning curve

Writer and activist Melissa Benn explains why she's so committed to comprehensive education

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Opening new grammar schools has been illegal since 1998 but there’s a new one due in Kent next year. Weald of Kent School has got around the law by suggesting the new school, 10 miles away from the existing one, is an annexe.

“I don’t trust the plan,” says comprehensive education campaigner Melissa Benn. “The council, a very powerful body down in Kent – which is like something out of the 1950s, as all selective areas are – and the government have worked hard to make sure it appears that it is an integrated school. I don’t think that model will work. I don’t think we’ll see staff rushing up and down the motorway.”

There are 164 grammar schools remaining in Britain, with 15 local authorities retaining the divisive 11-plus exam, despite the evidence suggesting they largely benefit the affluent and widen the gulf between the better and less well-off.

If Weald of Kent manages to get away with it, Benn says, the implications will be huge. “There are other grammars around the country that will want to do the same thing so we will see a completely unnecessary edging back towards an even more tiered and divisive local school system,” she says, adding: “But there will be a fightback, so watch out for that.”

As chair of campaign group Comprehensive Future, Benn planned to take the government to judicial review over the decision but requests for information from Kent County Council and the government have not been fulfilled and the group has been forced to put it on hold.

But Benn will not sit idle. Her work with Comprehensive Future is just one aspect of her campaigning for a fully comprehensive education system. She is a founding member of the Local Schools Network, promoting local schools, which often get a bad press. She and her colleague Janet Downs have just released a book, The Truth About Our Schools, exposing the myths about education and exploring the evidence in depth, beginning with the pervasive rhetoric that comprehensive education has failed.

 “There are still people who really believe in selective education, in dividing children up.”

“That myth has been around for as long as I can remember – ever since the big struggle for comprehensive reform in the 1960s and 1970s. Prior to that you had the grammar and secondary modern system that divided children into sheep and goats. Comprehensive reform was about saying we need a school system that is more unified, to give everyone a chance at qualifications and every child a chance of an equal education. But it remains a very contentious idea and, if you look at the Tory MPs now, and the various councils around the country that want to expand grammar school provision, there are still people who really believe in selective education, in dividing children up, although I think they’re slightly on the back foot now.”

Benn has been part of the struggle from the beginning. Her parents, radical socialist and Labour MP Tony and scholar and campaigner Caroline Benn, sent her and her three brothers to flagship comprehensive school Holland Park.

“My father had gone to private school but he believed in comprehensive education. He said ‘My children are going to go there’ and that made people become interested in it because there’s such a class-based obsession in our society and it all ties up with where you went to school. Everybody told my parents: ‘You’re going to sacrifice these children.’”

Benn’s mother was co-founder of the Campaign for Comprehensive Education. “She was tremendously knowledgeable. She wrote two of the key books about it and she was governor, for 30-plus years, of our school and chair of governors.”

Benn never intended to follow in her mother’s footsteps despite growing up “fiercely and quite emotionally supportive” of her work. Nor did she intend to follow her father into politics, as her brother, shadow foreign secretary Hilary Benn, did.

She became a writer, beginning on alternative arts and listings magazine City Limits. But she soon found herself in the midst of the familiar when her own daughters began their education and she was angered by the way comprehensive education was misrepresented.

Her journalism has included education writing for the Guardian and publications including Marxism Today. Her eight books include three on education – one a tribute to her mother’s work – one on feminism and another on motherhood.

“There were points where I suddenly thought: ‘Oh, I can see someone would think I’m walking in her footsteps.’ It wasn’t deliberate but I certainly developed a tremendous commitment and, maybe without realising it, had a store of knowledge that was below the surface.”

Similarly her politics are much in line with her father’s and her values, she says, very much in line with Jeremy Corbyn’s. Her brother meanwhile, who famously said he is a “Benn, but not a Bennite”, voted for Andy Burnham in the Labour leadership election, and opposed Corbyn on the Syria airstrikes, giving a surprisingly impassioned speech that went viral.

“Benn laughs at the suggestion that her brother became an internet sensation before quickly becoming serious.”

Benn laughs at the suggestion that her brother became an internet sensation before quickly becoming serious. “I will say nothing in the interest of being a loyal and supportive sister,” she says, later adding what she says is an important qualification: “I did not support the government motion on bombing Syria.”

Admitting she is being cautious, she says: “It’s a very complex situation we’re in… Corbyn won, I think, because the party wanted to shift Labour to a more radical social democratic place but he’s doing that within the context of a Parliamentary Labour Party that is still probably more at the New Labour end of things. The media are also deeply hostile to him and the irony is he’s actually a very good politician. He’s very relaxed and personally I think he’s one of the better leaders that Labour’s had in that sense. But the number of times I’ve sat in rooms and discussions where the Corbyn question divides people down the middle is extraordinary.”

Benn admits that her 2009 novel One Of Us – a modern reworking of Greek tragedy Antigone about the dangerous space between public and private lives – was a way of her exploring the tensions in political families without discussing her own family publicly.


“Beryl Bainbridge said that often friction creates fiction, in that there might be something in your life that’s difficult that gives you the idea for a plot. And that really is the way to see my novels… One Of Us, which took me a long time to write, is about that very complex relationship between politics and families but I didn’t do it as a form of therapy.

“I’ve just reviewed a book by The Times columnist David Aaronovitch which is about his communist childhood and he writes a lot about his parents’ marriage and his difficult adolescence. When I was reading it I thought I’d find it difficult to write like that. I feel very protective of my family – we all do – but maybe I feel particularly protective because they were both associated with controversial positions and I loved them dearly. They were my mum and dad.”

Does she think her own daughters, who studied politics at university, will continue the dynasty?

“I think they’re bound to reject lots of what they’re brought up with, or they’re bound to argue with it, but that’s progress of a sort. That’s how it should be. I’ve always taken the view, the view I was brought up with, that argument is a really good thing, an interesting and important thing. Just don’t let it be personal.” n

The Truth About Our Schools (Routledge, £14.99) by Melissa Benn and Janet Downs is out now

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