Melissa Benn

Posts Tagged ‘Comprehensives

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

Below, my column in Education Guardian today.

A few weeks ago this newspaper published a piece by Sarah Vine, Daily Mail columnist and wife of the education secretary, Micheal Gove, explaining why they had decided to send their daughter to a London state school.

It was a funny and lively article, and I agreed with just about every word. I was particularly drawn to Vine’s argument about the importance of educating students with very different interests and talents alongside one another, her belief that state schools produce more rounded, socially open citizens and her surprisingly robust criticism of the exclusivity and excessive competition of so much of the private sector.

Yet as time has gone on, Vine’s article has unsettled me. Why? Am I being irrational or ungenerous, unable to welcome even the spouse of an uncompromising Tory frontbencher over to “our” side of the educational divide?

Read the rest of the article here.

Here is an edited version of a speech I recently gave on educational equality at the Goldsmiths conference on Teaching and Learning, Future Tense. Graphics are courtesy of my creative and often hilarious colleague, Francis Gilbert.

I love the look of this website and the interesting people they interview and talk about. I was interviewed by them over a series of weeks – via e-mail – which has now appeared. I wasn’t sure if it would work but it really does – in part, because with each question addressed separately, both question and answer has a freshness and energy to it that you don’t always get in traditional exchanges, where everybody gets tired and tails off towards the end!

I also love the picture they use which has what appears to be a teenage Carla Bruni loitering at the back. Obviously not….but then again….. or maybe it’s just me…..

Below, a profile/interview in today’s Education Guardian by Peter Wilby.

Taking advantage of the net, and net democracy, I have put in a few corrections and some commentary at the bottom of the piece. Perhaps the Guardian or other newspapers might try this, in print and on line, sometime?

Keeping faith in comprehensives

Melissa Benn still believes the public can see the benefits of the classic comprehensive school system

Education has the potential to create a “common culture” according to Melissa Benn.

Britain doesn’t have many American-style political dynasties, but the Benns are an exception. Three generations have produced a cabinet minister apiece: Tony Benn, once the stuff of bourgeois nightmares but now an octogenarian “national treasure”, is the best-known and his son Hilary, a New Labour minister from 2001, is the most recent. And from the next generation, Emily Benn, Tony’s granddaughter, stood unsuccessfully, aged 20, as a Labour candidate in last year’s general election. Read the rest of this entry »


Welcome to my website. I am a writer, novelist and campaigner. Follow the link below to my latest book. Join the conversation on Twitter. Or comment on this blog......

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