Melissa Benn

A quick report on two successes for the comprehensive argument in recent student union debates.

The first was held on February 5th, at Manchester Debating Union, the largest student debating body in the country, where Professor Bernard Barker ( the first comprehensive student to go on to become the head of a comprehensive school) and I were arguing against Robert McCartney of the National Grammar Schools Association and Graham Brady MP on the motion: This House Supports the Re-Introduction of Grammar Schools.

After a heated, but largely good tempered, discussion, between panellists and from the floor, the motion was defeated. (Initial voting had suggested a narrow margin against the motion; we increased our share of the vote after the debate.) One of the key themes raised in this discussion was whether comprehensive schools produce good results – we argued that they certainly can – and, a slightly different point here, cater for really bright children? On the latter point, we heard anecdotes from either side of the argument. Robert McCartney tried to suggest that comprehensive education was based on sloppy, overly ‘progressive’ and child-centred ideas of teaching and learning. It seems that MDU agreed with us that Mr McCartney was behind the times on this issue.

For videos of all the contributions and further details of the debate itself, click on the MDU link above.

I took part in a similar debate at the Cambridge Union on February 19th. Here, our challenge was greater than it was in Manchester as voting at the beginning of the debate was in favour of the motion This House Would Re-introduce Grammar Schools; our job was to persuade the ‘House’ otherwise.

Cambridge Union is much more formal in atmosphere and structure; one can be interrupted, bar the first and last minute, at any point during one’s speech; most of the male debaters still wear formal dress, including bow ties; in short, it can feel like a rehearsal for life in the House of Commons or at the Bar ( although I understand the Oxford Union is even worse, in this respect..)

Our opponents were Robert McCartney (again), Andrew Shilling, a parent leading a campaign to set up a new/satellite grammar in Kent and Shaun Fenton, head of Reigate grammar, an independent school. Our side was represented by Michael Pyke of CASE, Ndidi Okesie, of Teach First and myself, recently elected Chair of Comprehensive Future.

A couple of action shots:

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Again, we won this debate, quite decisively, with a swing of 33% in our favour.

In my view, this was due to two main elements. Firstly, even those arguing for the ‘reintroduction’ of grammar schools could not really justify the historic waste of talent and opportunity – ably elaborated by Michael Pyke – that resulted from the post war division between grammars and secondary moderns. The argument, on their side, seems to have shifted from the reintroduction of a mandatory 11 plus to the importance of offering an ‘academic’ education to a few (most of whom, judging on current figures, are likely to come from relatively affluent homes) with good comprehensives for the rest. (No-one uses the term ‘secondary moderns’ any more, for obvious reasons. ) The fact that you cannot have a grammar and comprehensive system running side by side cannot be stated too often.

Secondly, our side’s strength lay in our detailed exposition of the evidence of the slow and steady educational success brought about by comprehensive education in this country over the last fifty years, the fact that selection clearly harms the opportunities and achievements of poor children ( this argument was powerfully expressed by Ndidi Okozie) and that large parts of the Tory party now recognise that selection harms the majority. Finally, we have learned a great deal about what makes a good comprehensive system, and school, over the last fifty years, leading to some examples of stunning schools around the country, and particularly in poorer areas.

For all these reasons ( and more) there is now a broad cross-party consensus that non selective schools – a good local school for all – is the only rational principle on which to run a state education system and that it would be fatal to return to a damaging and divisive system of old.

Reader, they agreed with us.

I will be taking part in a few debates and discussions over the next few months.

First up – see below…..

MANCHESTER DEBATING UNION

This House Would Reintroduce Grammar Schools
February 5 @ 5:00 pm / 6:30 pm
This House Would Reintroduce Grammar Schools
Grammar schools, dominant in the UK until the 1960s, ran under a system of selective education. At age 11 all school students would be given a general intelligence exam. If a student passed they would gain entrance to a more academically based grammar school. If they failed they would be sent to a school focusing more on practical skills. There’s an increasing minority within the political establishment who argue that grammar schools should be reintroduced, including the resurgent UK Independence Party, believing that it offers an opportunity for the brightest students to thrive regardless of socioeconomic background. Critics argue that it creates segregation in our society, and only removes a few children from their troubled backgrounds rather than tacking the root causes of deprivation. This week the Manchester Debating Union asks: should we reintroduce grammar schools?

Facebook event page: http://www.facebook.com/events/1610632269165849/

Speakers:

– Proposition —

– Robert McCartney QC
Barrister and Former Leader of the UK Unionist Party and founder of the National Grammar Schools Association.
http://www.ngsa.org.uk/

– Graham Brady MP
Conservative MP for Altrincham and Sale West, former Shadow Secretary for Europe and Chairman of the 1992 Committee.
http://www.grahambradymp.co.uk/

— Opposition —

– Melissa Benn
Journalist and author, founder of the Local Schools Network which campaigns in favour of a totally comprehensive schooling system.
http://melissabenn.com/

– Professor Bernard Barker

IN CONVERSATION WITH OWEN JONES

September 29th, 7 pm. I will be in conversation with Owen Jones about his new book The Establishment: And how they get away with it

Location: Sutton House, 2-4 Homerton High Street, Hackney, London E9 6JQ

The event is put on by Pages bookshop in Hackney. Go to their events page to book tickets for this event.

HENLEY LITERARY FESTIVAL

Feminist writer and activist Laura Bates and I: in conversation with Monisha Rajesh, talking about young women today, fourth wave feminism, sexism today and much much more.

2pm Town Hall £9

Box Office Mon-Fri 10am-2pm 01491 575948

CONFERENCE ON WOMEN AND EDUCATION

Thirtieth anniversary conference organised by Mulberry School for Girls:’ Educating Twenty First Century Women: Passion, Possibilities and Power’ on Friday 10th October 2014, at the Queen Elizabeth 11 Conference Centre, Westminster, London.

The afternoon panel, beginning at 2pm, will discuss the empowerment and disempowerment of women in powerful institutions such as politics, religion and law. The other speakers are: Rt Hon Yvette Cooper MP – Shadow Home Secretary Reverend Rose Hudson Wilkin – Speakers Chaplin at the House of Lords Eleanor Mills – Editorial Director of The Sunday Times Munira Mirza – Deputy Mayor of Education and Culture – Greater London Authority Jo Wilding – Human Rights Barrister at Garden Court Chamber – Ndidi Okezie – Educationalist and Regional Director at Teach First Chair: Kat Banyard – Founder of UKFeminsta and Author of The Equality Illusion

SYMPOSIUM ON EDUCATION AND RUSKIN.

I will be taking part in a symposium put on by the Guild of St. George and The Ruskin Library and Research Centre (Lancaster University) entitled: Education for Education’s Sake? A Symposium on Ruskin and modern education at Toynbee Hall 28 Commercial St, London E1 6LS United Kingdom 10.00 a.m. 4.30 p.m. Saturday, 11 October, 2014


WOMEN’S THERAPY CENTRE: ANNUAL GENERAL MEETING

The theme of this AGM will be mothers and daughters. Also speaking will be Dilek Gungor, senior psychotherapist, who will talk about a new WTC initiative for Mothers and Daughters.

11 am – 1pm, Friday October 17th, 2014

Islington Town Hall, Upper Street, London N1 2UD ( Committee Room 5)

OUR COMMUNITY, OUR SCHOOLS

Special meeting in Walthamstow, put on by Our Community, Our Schools on ‘What do we want from our schools? A Charter for Schools’ on Tuesday 21 October 2014

7.30pm, Harmony Hall, Truro Road, Walthamstow

For more details, go to this website.

The FORGIVENESS PROJECT

As part of a season looking at different aspects of forgiveness, I will be chairing a session on November 10th
wrestling with the question: How do words help relieve pain?

Exploring how the written and spoken word can help the recovery process will be Mr Gee, the acclaimed London poet, musician and comedian who recently presented Radio 4’s ‘Poetic Justice’ series encouraging inmates to write poems, and Marian Partington, whose sister was a victim of serial killers Frederick and Rosemary West and who has seen first-hand how recounting her story to offenders through The Forgiveness Project’s RESTORE programme has helped change lives. Marian’s remarkable and lyrical memoir ‘If You Sit Very Still’ tells the story. Tim Caroe is a GP who works with people (who are often called patients) and the stories they bring to him in his role as a doctor. He aims to help them to write the next chapter of their life narrative in a way that sustains them.

Venue: St Ethelburga’s Centre, Bishopsgate, London, EC2N 4AG
Doors open at 6pm with the conversation beginning at 6.30pm
Tickets cost £11 and available from here… http://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/how-do-words-help-relieve-pain-tickets-11552470751
Please note tickets are not available on the door.

Below, my contribution to a recent discussion in Prospect, reflecting on the publication of a recent report by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission.

The big question: Social mobility

Is Britain still too elitist?

A new report states that people educated at Oxbridge have created a “closed shop at the top”

Each week, Prospect asks a range of experts, as well as our readers, to come up with answers to the questions defining the political agenda.

This week, a report by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission into the social makeup of Britain’s leaders in business, media, politics and public service found that elitism was still deeply embedded in British society. Alan Milburn, the Labour former cabinet minister who chairs the commission, concluded that Britain remains a “deeply divided” country.

Read more here including my contribution to this discussion ( reproduced below..) Other contributors include Simon Jenkins, Toby Young and Anthony Seldon.

‘Liberal’ attitudes mask a war on the poor

The findings of Milburn’s report are pretty unequivocal. Britain is still ruled largely by those who come from educationally privileged, and therefore affluent, backgrounds. Today’s elite combines covertness about privilege with an extraordinary carelessness about the lives of others—this is typified by leaders like Cameron and Clegg, who have prosecuted a ruthless war against the poor, cunningly masked by a modern “liberal” attitude. Among the most pressing reforms needed now is a genuinely fairer education system and more diverse political representation. I particularly like the idea of university-blind job applications.

Melissa Benn is a writer and campaigner and founder member of the Local Schools Network

My session at the recent Edinburgh International Book Festival ( August 17th) was filmed. There is also an added bit at the end, talking to members of the audience about their reaction to the session and the festival etc.

Below, my piece in today’s Guardian Comment page on the sudden demotion of Michael Gove.

One could hear the gasps echoing around the political world yesterday morning. Gove demoted to the whips’ office? Unthinkable.

Or was it? For experienced Gove watchers, there were a few signs in the air. At last month’s Wellington College festival of education, I sat with more than 1,000 people in a marquee waiting for the secretary of state. This was the minister’s natural habitus, an annual jamboree of new-right education reformers sponsored by his old employer the Sunday Times and hosted by a key Gove ally, Anthony Seldon.

But the minister was well over an hour late. And the crowd was getting restless. Gove was apparently stuck in traffic – a poor excuse for a man who is driven everywhere, but an indication perhaps of his less impressive qualities: accident-prone, a touch hapless, careless – even of his most loyal following.

It didn’t help that so many of Gove’s policies were beginning to fray at the edges. Once hailed as the democratic vehicle of parent power, too many free schools have got into a shabby sort of trouble over the last year. The evidence on sponsored academies, the supposed “silver bullet” for school improvement, has also worn thin, thanks largely to the diligent research of my Local Schools Network colleague Henry Stewart. Only this week, it was acknowledged in the high court that results at academies are frequently swollen by vocational equivalents that the minister himself long ago repudiated…

Red the rest of the piece here.

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