Socialist Worker

Melissa Benn interview: The Battle for Britain’s Education

Tory plans for ‘free schools’ are just the latest attempt to turn the clock back on comprehensive education. Campaigner and author Melissa Benn spoke to Sadie Robinson about the government’s agenda of inequality

Issue No. 2271

Melissa Benn

Melissa Benn

The Tory plans for our schools are tantamount to going “back to Victorian times”. That’s the stark conclusion of Melissa Benn, a writer and campaigner for comprehensive education.

The government is hell-bent on replacing comprehensive schools with privately-run academies and so called “free schools”. These moves will reinforce class divisions and slash democratic control over schools, says Melissa.

“I think that what’s really behind academies is getting rid of local democracy and shifting education towards the private sector. It will be state-funded—but not a state system.”

Melissa’s new book, School Wars: the Battle for Britain’s Education, demolishes the Tory rhetoric on academies. It exposes their aim to shift resources from the poor to the rich and make business more powerful. And it lays out what is at stake if we don’t stop them.

The Tories try to pretend that their plans will help working class children. They complain that the mixed ability classes found in comprehensives stop the cleverest children from reaching their potential. Yet the evidence shows the opposite is the case—mixed ability classes benefit all children.


What’s really going on here, says Melissa, is the Tories’ hatred of classrooms that cross the lines of social class. They believe that people have fixed intelligence, that working class children are generally less bright than middle class children, and that they should consequently “know their place”.

Of course the Tories can’t get away with being so blatant about their abhorrent views. So they talk instead about children having “different” talents and how everyone isn’t “cut out” to go to university.

Comprehensive schools were introdcued in 1963 to replace Britain’s previous state education system, which was divided into grammar schools, secondary moderns and technical schools. This system was meant to select based on ability. But in practice the grammar schools were full of children from richer backgrounds.

“Class shapes the whole thing,” says Melissa. “Before comprehensives, all children took a test before puberty called the 11-plus. It decided your future.

“Around 20 to 30 percent of children went to grammars, which were well-resourced and well-regarded. The other 70 percent were told that they were second rate. I think the Tories want to go back to a version of this system, using the market and ideological stealth.”

Comprehensives were different because they didn’t select their students. Children with different abilities—and from different backgrounds—went to school together and attend the same classes.

The introduction of comprehensives was a defeat for the right. It signalled that working class people were no longer prepared to accept a second rate education for their children.


But education under capitalism is always geared towards meeting the demands of business by training a new generation of workers. And this business-centred model of education is at bottom incompatible with ideals of human, emotional and academic development.

So why are comprehensives still worth defending? “Education can’t overcome inequality, but it can do a lot,” says Melissa. The move towards comprehensive education represented “a fundamental shift of ideas about human beings”.

“Comprehensives are still places where all children genuinely do go to school together,” she adds. “I think that remains a very radical idea.”

In particular, Melissa stresses how comprehensives challenged certain dogmas about “intelligence” that were and are used to justify class division.

The argument went that people had a “natural” intelligence which determined class.

Decent education, therefore, would be wasted on working class children, who lacked the necessary intelligence. That, according to the right, was why poorer children didn’t so as well as richer ones.

“There’s an underlying view of some in the elite that some children aren’t worth educating,” says Melissa, “or a fear that it would be dangerous to educate them.

“The right says that poor children fail because of poor teaching and a ‘mediocre’ comprehensive ethos.

“But poverty has a huge impact. Private and grammar schools select the more well-off students.They are much better resourced than comprehensives. Yet the Tories and the right wing press don’t take this into account when judging schools.

“They compare a comprehensive in Bradford to a grammar in Kent and ask which is the better school based on results. But the grammar school will select the richest children in Kent. You cannot compare the two.”

Ultimately Melissa argues that the problem isn’t comprehensive schools—it’s the fact that we don’t have a fully comprehensive education system.

“Private schools filter out certain children and grammars largely educate the middle class,” she says. “Many comprehensives have high proportions of disadvantaged children and suffer from a lack of resources.”

The government claims its free schools and academies will solve the problem by “levelling up” poorer children.But in fact they will just increase the divide between well-resourced schools and poor schools—and that between richer and poorer students.

“Parents will know what’s the ‘grammar’ option in their area,” she says. “It will be those schools that get children to the elite Russell Group universities.

“Schools that focus on trades will be seen as the craft route. The rest will be seen as the secondary modern route. We will lose the idea that every child has the right to a good, general and rich education.”

Melissa dismisses the government’s rhetoric about safeguarding poorer children: “The Lib Dems talk about fast-tracking pupils on free school meals into ‘good’ schools. I worry that the government’s favoured schools will take some bright, poorer children to get good free school meal figures.

“And those who are not so apparently talented or have problems with English will go to local schools. Then we’ll be told, yet again, that the local school model doesn’t work.”


Melissa adds that business sponsorship will exacerbate divisions. “Certain schools would attract more sponsorship based on who is running them,” she says. “They would have far more resources. But it will be a disaster for poorer schools that don’t have those contacts.”

Supporters of academies highlight how some of them produce good results. But as Melissa puts it, “that doesn’t mean that the model is right”.

“Someone said to me, how can you oppose academies? They point to examples like Mossbourne Academy in Hackney. But I visited Mossbourne and I think that what makes it work, apart from being well-resourced, is that it has a genuine comprehensive intake.”

She warns that academies are an attack on those who work in schools and not just the children who are taught there. “I think there’s a very strong anti-union element in all of this,” she says.

“The anti-union section that’s driving Charter Schools in the US is very strong. We should be aware of what’s coming.”

So what does the opposition to academies look like? Given that comprehensives were such a step forward for working class people, you might expect the Labour Party to be wholeheartedly behind them.

But an interesting theme of Melissa’s book is the widespread ambivalence towards comprehensive education in mainstream politics.

“No mainstream party really believed in comprehensive education,” says Melissa. “So they weren’t prepared to put the resources into it. I think that’s still the case today. Ed Miliband is in a dilemma because Labour brought in academies.”

At the TUC conference last month Labour leader Ed Miliband said that free schools, academies and comprehensives had to exist alongside each other. He was heckled throughout his speech.

But despite this, Melissa still retains some faith in the Labour Party. “My ideal Labour government, instead of trying to show the nation that it’s tough on unions, would start a conversation with them. That would be a fantastic scenario.”

It isn’t clear how such a shift within the Labour Party could take place. Melissa says the question of how we stop the Tories is a “difficult” one.

One reason is the mainstream political consensus that the market is the best way to run services. “Everyone is so in awe of the private sector—even though it’s been shown to be fragile.”

She wants to get back to the idea that “the state can become a means of channelling taxed wealth in places where it’s needed”. But then what isn’t so clear is a strategy for bringing that about.

Melissa stresses that ordinary people have won change in the past—and that we can do so again. “Elites don’t always get their own way,” she says. “If they could we’d probably still have a very clear hierarchy of schools with grammars and secondary moderns everywhere.

“I’m beginning to feel more cheerful because I can see a way through all this – but mainstream politicians are not going to lead us through it. If those of us who think we’re going the wrong way speak up, we can shift things.”

Academies: Don’t believe the Tory lies on funding

The government is promising lots of money for academies and free schools. For some parents this may seem like a dream come true. But Melissa Benn warns that we must not fall for Tory rhetoric on funding.

“Academies will find that their money runs out,” she says. “We’ll get schools financially floundering.”

And academies are poisonous to local comprehensive schools. They drain resources from neighbouring schools. They aren’t accountable to local councils.

Chains of private charities, such as ARK, E-ACT and Harris, are running academies already.

They have their eye on the Tories’ new “free schools” too.

The government has claimed that free schools would provide education “for the community, by the community”.

But most are set up by a heinous cocktail of middle class parents trying to recreate grammar schools.

Alasdair Smith, national secretary of the Anti Academies Alliance, told Socialist Worker “Resistance to imposition of academies can win. This month the Tory heartland four schools— Linconshire—defied the government to stay with the local authority.”

Melissa Benn will be speaking on her new book School Wars: The Battle for Britain’s Education at Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop, on 4 October, 6.30pm. Go to

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Tue 27 Sep 2011, 19:00 BST
Issue No. 2271
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