Melissa Benn

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Last night I took part in BBC Radio 4’s soft focus pre-election programme Two Rooms, along with Fraser Nelson, editor of the Spectator ( which now, rather amusingly, calls itself ‘ the oldest continuously published magazine..’) The basic premise of the programme is that two groups of people – one broadly optimistic about their lives , one much less so – sit in two separate rooms debating the same issues. You could call it the Two Nations – Sort Of. Very post-ideological, very Radio 4.

In the first programme, which broadcast some moving stories of terrible poverty in Britain 2015, the Two Rooms talked about personal finance; last night the group discussed education and opportunity.

it was an interesting, if frustrating experience. (Recording took four hours – so the programme was heavily edited.) Many in Room A, to which I was assigned, were older and had come out into a (relatively) buoyant job market, where qualifications had some meaning and provided them with a ladder of opportunity. One participant had re-trained, via an access course, to become a physiotherapist. One quiet mid-life woman described how she had gone from her comprehensive to Cambridge, where she was very unhappy, but said that her education had opened up all sorts of opportunities as a result. There was only one privately educated person in the room. From Northern Ireland, he lacked the air of entitlement that so often surrounds his English counterparts.

What these stories showed, I argued, was the impact of recent, and often dramatic, cuts in everything from access courses to career guidance, not to mention well paying jobs; hence the experience of Room B, where those in possession of a degree could not even get any employment, even at the minimum wage. One younger member of Room A spoke at length, and very movingly, about how, at every stage of his life, it was the welfare state that had saved him: free secondary education, help with council housing and social services.

Interestingly, we were there to discuss education but hardly anyone mentioned it, except in the briefest and most personal terms (‘my history teacher really helped me’). There were few complaints about state schools and no mention at all of the last five years of upheaval in our schools under the Coalition. Nor, I am sad to say, did the Radio 4 include my report on the findings of a recent LSE/Manchester University study, by Dr Ruth Lupton among others, that the end result of the Coalition’s prolonged experiment in marketisation has been a marginal increase in the results of the brightest, and a corresponding dip in the results of children from more deprived families. After all that!

That the Coalition education revolution has spluttered to a halt was, however, reflected both in the quiescence and frustration of Both Rooms. Fraser Nelson, a Gove enthusiast, was keen to talk about the transformational impact of a good education, but the ordinary British citizens in Rooms A and B know better. They know that education alone, particularly in a grossly hierarchical system – and not just of schools, but increasingly of universities- cannot fix the problem of opportunity.

There was not a single mention of academies, free schools, bring-back-the-grammars………but plenty of talk about the injustice of unpaid internships, the way education is turning into a business, the need for properly paid work experience, and the need for expert personal and career guidance. Both rooms expressed emotions between dismay and disgust at the fact that a child from a private school has a 200 to 1 chance of getting into Oxbridge while a child at a state school has only a 2000 to 1 chance. A pity then that neither of the rooms came up with a proposal to abolish, or restrict state subsidy, of private schools.

How does any of this fit with the upcoming General Election? Education is proving a rather second order issue, as if the nation itself is worn out with Gove-ite exhortation. Apart from an increase in proper apprenticeships ( which all agreed upon), Fraser Nelson could only really come up with some very second order proposals, such as more speakers in schools, and internships for those from poorer families.

Nelson seems to think that if only the poor, benighted state school graduates could get access to the wonderful contacts and networks of the privately educated, all will be well. This seems to me a profound mis-reading of the way social networks, and privilege, work. It takes a lifetime of opportunity, support, second and third chances to create a Boris Johnson – not one shot at listening to the editor of Spectator at a lunchtime sixth form careers fair.

But if the political right have run out of meaningful answers for the problems of education and employment, something much more interesting is happening over in the progressive/Labour camp. Just this morning, Tristram Hunt announced a potentially exciting development in Labour policy that fits perfectly with the concerns expressed in Two Rooms.

Building on the slow, patient work of recent years, like the Heads Roundtable and the Husbands review, Labour have now come out strongly in favour of moving towards a baccalaureate structure for the 14-19 years, suggesting that they might eventually phase out GCSEs (no longer fit for modern purpose) in favour of a diploma style qualification that will embrace both vocational and academic pathways.

This modern, flexible structure will indeed provide those more vocationally oriented with a pathway to pursue but within the context of a good general education. Within this scheme, every student will have to continue with maths and English to 18, as well as develop certain personal skills and undertake an extended project. The Bacc structure offers a much more challenging and flexible programme of learning and is one that those in both Rooms A and B might have benefitted from, and would, I am sure, support.

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.

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

Harry’s Last Stand by Harry Leslie Smith and Austerity Bites by Mary O’Hara – my latest review in the Guardian.

Right now, some inventive literary festival programmer is probably trying to set up a staged discussion between Harry Leslie Smith and Mary O’Hara. If not, they should – it would be fascinating. Smith, a mere 91 years of age, is boiling with anger at what he sees as the UK’s return to the indignities of his Great Depression childhood. O’Hara, an experienced reporter, brings a cool head to her story of the impact of the cuts over the last four years.

Yet for all the difference in age, experience and literary voice, these writers, both of whom began their lives in poverty, speak of remarkably similar things. And both books add to a mounting body of work on the growing economic divide in modern Britain: “an emergency”, according to Smith, “as dire as the economic crisis of 1933″.

Only a few pages in, I decided that the best way to read his unusually structured book was to approach it as a kind of epic poem, one that moves in circular fashion from passionate denunciation to intense autobiographical reflection. Smith’s early childhood – he grew up in Yorkshire in the 1930s – was one of almost Dickensian deprivation: his older sister Marion died aged 10 of tuberculosis in Barnsley’s old workhouse, and his unemployed miner father of alcoholism and loneliness. Wartime service in the RAF at least brought Smith regular meals and a reliable wage, and he met his German wife, Friede, in the ravages of postwar Berlin. The couple moved to Canada where moderate economic prosperity and ordinary family contentment rescued him from the bitterness of his early years.

In a manner suggestive of Ken Loach’s magisterial 2013 film The Spirit of ’45, Smith sees the postwar era, in particular the creation of the welfare state, as Britain’s finest moment, a compact between industry and labour, the middle and working classes, destroyed a half-century or more later by neoliberal economics and unrestrained finance capital. (Unlike Loach, he also puts a bit of the blame on what he sees as the over-mighty trade unionism of the 70s.) All hope of greater equality or genuine democracy is now being swept away, here and in the US, by greedy corporations, the heedless tax-evading rich and near-corrupt governments, who “act like acolytes from a cult who worship profits over common sense”. This has returned the UK to the landscape of his childhood, in which “food poverty, like a tidal flood, has begun to encroach upon both city and suburban dwellers”.

In one particularly depressing scene, he describes being picked up at the airport, on a return visit to Yorkshire, by a distant cousin who takes him on a tour of Halifax, where Smith spent his later childhood. As they drive the roads in drizzling rain, jet-lagged Smith is made gloomy by the dire economic plight of the town and his cousin’s Ukip-style rantings about immigrants.

Smith’s book may be more overtly political and emotional, but O’Hara’s lucid account of a year-long trip around austerity Britain left me reeling and somehow more ashamed. A reasonably well-informed citizen will have most of the jigsaw pieces to hand: the mean-spirited “bedroom tax”; the increased number of food banks; the dramatic reduction in local government budgets and public sector jobs; the punitive sanctions on job seekers in a labour market short even of insecure, poorly paid work; a battery of new tests for disabled people; and the erosion of legal aid.

O’Hara clarifies this jumble of privations in several significant ways. She never loses sight of human beings, too easily buried beneath the rubble of official acronyms and policy speak. There is a chapter devoted to the emotional fallout of austerity: the loss of identity, self-hatred, multiple suicide attempts and sheer hopelessness of those marooned without income or work – or any future prospect of either.

Petty applications of new benefit rules mean claimants risk losing already meagre sums for four weeks, 13 weeks or, “if it happens a third time”, for as long as three years. One job seeker tells O’Hara: “You’re five minutes late for your appointment, you show the adviser your watch, which is running late, but you still get sanctioned for a month.” Another says: “It’s Christmas Day and you don’t fill in your job search evidence form to show that you’ve looked for all the new jobs that are advertised on Christmas Day. You are sanctioned. Merry Christmas.” The devastation wreaked on the disabled, thousands of whom face up to six separate welfare cuts by 2015, has been, says the usually understated O’Hara, “jaw-dropping”.

By the end, she makes a convincing case that the coalition has in effect prosecuted a callous four-year “war on the weakest” in our society. You can’t help but share in her icy judgments of Cameron, Osborne, Gove and co, and particularly the hapless work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith, who didn’t even turn up for the parliamentary debate on the bedroom tax in November 2013. Tory high jinks during that same debate, with one MP pretending to nod off and another making jokes about the name of the tax, suggested too many MPs have become out of touch with common decency, let alone with vast parts of the country.

O’Hara also helpfully dissects the ways in which a Benefits Street-style political narrative has made welfare so much more publicly unpopular. Alarmist references to the size of the benefits bill fail to make clear that the figure also includes pensions and subsidies for the working poor; the extent of welfare fraud is vastly overstated; the much publicised, and apparently reasonable, “cap” of £26,000 punishes large families and saves relatively little money in overall terms; government press releases make continual use of emotive phrases such as “dependence”, “entrenched” and “addiction”.

Without robust enough challenge from either the compliant Liberal Democrats or the official opposition, the state has been slashed. Meanwhile, the official narrative has subtly shifted from deficit-cutting necessity and “We’re all in it together”, to a leaner, meaner state – oh, and let’s kick out the Romanian hordes.

What’s keeping people afloat are the remnants of the state and the real Big, but now Battered, Society: what’s left of voluntary and community action, and the numerous activist campaigns that have sprung up in recent years. Even so, such is the level of distrust and anger among large parts of the population, O’Hara warns, that a rerun of the 2011 riots is entirely possible.

Both books, but particularly O’Hara’s, should be required reading for every MP, peer, councillor, civil servant and commentator. The fury and sense of powerlessness that so many people feel at government policy beam out of every page.

• To order Harry’s Last Stand for £9.74 (RRP £12.99) and Austerity Bites for £15.99 (RRP £19.99) with free UK p&p call Guardian book service on 0330 333 6846 or go to guardianbookshop.co.uk

Below the first of a number of short extracts, that I will be publishing on this blog, from ‘What Should We Tell Our Daughters?’ – now out in paperback, and available from all good bookshops and, of course, from Amazon.

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What about sex? Even young children realise, if only subliminally, that they owe their very existence to the act of sex; they are born from their mother’s all-too-human body. Eeeew. Disgusting. Etc. It does not prohibit discussion of ‘the facts of life’ but it certainly throws up a barrier between mothers and daughters (and even more so between fathers and daughters).Talking recently about coming out to her mother, the actress and comedian Sue Perkins said that the really difficult thing about it was the introduction of the idea that she was actually having sex, regardless of who with. That is the mortifying, if utterly obvious, fact in play. Despite these embarrassments, it is vital to get across the simple message to our daughters that only they can decide what to do, and with whom, and that a young woman who values herself is more likely to be valued by others.

I asked four friends, all of whom are involved in ‘communications’ in some way, how they dealt with this delicate issue:

Friend number 1: I answered any questions directly put to me about sex but didn’t talk about the act itself, or its effect on me, or sexual pleasure etc., and recently, a newspaper asked me to write a piece about my first sexual experience and I turned it down specifically because of my daughter. If I hadn’t got her, I would probably have written the piece. I told her about the commission and she said she’d be fine about me doing it, but I felt inhibited. I don’t think it’s part of the parent–child relationship, to talk about intimate experiences, UNLESS they come to you and ask. In which case, I would feel duty bound and indeed willing to discuss it. Something about boundaries here, I think.

Friend number 2: Despite having what I’d describe as a very open relationship with my children they were always very guarded about their private lives. And so as my two daughters were growing up I found myself wary of saying anything; since I grew up in a pretty sheltered environment and they didn’t. There was an unspoken understanding that in a way they knew MORE than me. Also they were both always ‘sensible’, late-ish developers, so no boyfriends till twenty-odd. They also read a lot, debated things like safe sex at school, and so I felt I had permission to have a very hands-off approach. I never felt I was ducking out. Instinctively I knew if I raised the subject of sex with them they would either shrug, laugh or scream. Oddly, I feel I can be more open with my teenage son on all these matters. He’s not as embarrassed as they were.

Friend number 3: When they were little, I gave them the basic facts of life – and tried to be quite honest about it. By the time they got to the early teen years, I was passing them basic material – booklets and things – on ‘what happens to your body in puberty’ but in a slightly shifty manner. I would sometimes sit with them when certain programmes were on late at night – those entertaining but ghastly shows about sex and bodies. I found them almost shockingly frank. There was this one TV journalist called Anna who took a sex education show around schools – and she would put naked men and women, of different ages, up on a stage – and get the children to talk about it. It was great actually. My daughters and I sniggered a bit but it was very instructive and I felt a weight taken off my shoulders. Once my elder daughter got involved in a relationship, at seventeen, it was harder. More books, I’m afraid. So I ordered a copy of Our Bodies Ourselves, the American bible of self-help feminism of the second wave (one of the very few available from Amazon) and said, ‘OK so I think this has important information which you need to know about.’ More laughter – but I noticed that they would flick through it and I heard them talking to each other. ‘Look at this chapter heading “What if I can’t come?” ’ and ‘Oh my god, there’s a chapter on masturbation’. And Iwould say – ‘Yes, very important theme’, and then run out the room. That was the best I could do – I mean, what parent is going to show their child how to masturbate? Or even say those few magic words, ‘Find your clitoris and make it work for you.’ I guess, if I’m honest, that’s the one message I would really like to get over.

Friend number 4: Looking back, I probably should have talked more about sex when they were younger. To tell them they have a right to sexual pleasure, a right to say no, that you’re not a slut if you sleep with a boy. They should learn how their bodies work. They should not be ashamed to ‘get to know their bodies’. I suppose one of the most important lessons is that there are different kinds of sex. And while I would say, ‘learn to masturbate’, because then you will know how to show others how to give you pleasure, it’s also OK to have sex, and not to come. Maybe you can only come fairly intermittently. The point is, there are different kinds of sex. I feel it is my duty as a parent, if I want to promote real happiness for my daughters, to be more honest about this stuff.


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