The education debate — School Wars

Melissa Benn reports over eight months from the front line in the battle for Britain’s education.

Melissa Benn reports over eight months from the front line in the battle for Britain’s education.

In September 2011, Melissa Benn published "School Wars: the Battle for Britain's Education", an examination of the UK's school system and a passionate defence of the comprehensive ideal.

Tracing the history of British education from 1944 onwards, the book analyses the ambivalence of successive governments, Labour and Tory, towards comprehensive reform, leading to the current "marketisation" of education. Benn argues that at the heart of the "Gove revolution" is the demolition of the role of democratically elected local organisations and their replacement with unaccountable charitable and private bodies, increasingly organised into chains. In the months after its publication, Benn took the book and its arguments out to a wider public. Here, we publish a diary of her own school wars . . .

August 2011 Back from holiday, geared up for the usual trials of publication, and then some. Such is the polarised landscape around education that a book defending the gains of the comprehensive movement and arguing for more resources and less selection is bound to make a large part of the nation - and the media - see red, particularly as the first batch of free schools is about to open. The C-word has become a dirty word over the past decades; class anxiety and ambition still strongly shape our school system. Yet the top-performing systems around the world - those of Finland and South Korea, for example - are non-selective.

I am a little surprised to find the Guardian's education editor, Jeevan Vasagar, take to Twitter to denounce an article I have written, in his own paper, on the continuing inequalities in our education system as "incoherent and despairing". The civil servant Sam Freedman, policy adviser to Michael Gove, jumps in to agree with him. Aren't civil servants supposed to retain a degree of political impartiality?

September 2011 Gove defends free schools in the London Evening Standard, describing the "principal opponents" of the policy as "Tony Benn's daughter, the Hon Melissa Benn, and Alastair Campbell's partner, Fiona Millar . . . well-connected media types from London's most privileged circles". This is a bit rich. What two middle-aged men, with years of political, journalistic and campaigning experience between them, would be described solely in relation to their mothers and wives? As for Gove, an intimate ally of Rupert Murdoch, claiming that it is his critics who are part of the privileged media establishment, well, that's laughable.

As the first free schools open, most news­papers follow the government line that they are an important, socially just innovation. I wonder. How much are they a conscience-salve for the many editors and columnists who have educated their children privately and are now glad to support pseudo-private institutions such as Toby Young's West London Free School, with its Latin mottos and teachers in flowing black gowns? Free schools hand over precious funding at a time of austerity to an unproven and suspiciously inegalitarian social experiment.

Over the months, I engage in reasonably good-tempered debates with everyone from Robert McCartney QC, chairman of the National Grammar Schools Association, to Anthony Seldon, 13th Master of Wellington College. Odd, then, that a cosy-sounding lunchtime "seminar" at the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) in the City of London turns out to be my most difficult meeting yet. Under its chief executive, Matthew Taylor, a former adviser to Tony Blair at No 10, the genteel arts organisation sponsors a number of academies. The RSA has invited me to debate my case publicly with Lucy Heller, managing director of Ark, one of the more successful academy chains and a charitable schools provider set up by hedge-fund millionaires.

Heller is an interesting character, committed to the comprehensive cause, if under the acad­emies rubric. I lay out my concerns about the lack of democratic accountability in the academy and free school movements, including the whopping sums earned by some at the top of the new chains, such as the former schools commissioner Bruce Liddington, who was reputed to earn £280,000-plus as the head of the schools chain E-Act. I express concern at the emerging "two-tier" local ecology of schools, similar to the charter school movement in the US, which has been so damaging to the public (state) school system there.

Heller argues that academies are the best way to improve poorer children's results and then rather strangely uses the (rapidly improving) results at my daughters' community school to construct her anti-comprehensive case. Francis Beckett, education writer and New Statesman contributor, cancels his RSA subscription later that afternoon in protest at the personal tenor of the attacks on me from both Heller and the audience. It is certainly an odd experience to be barracked by Tory Westminster councillors implying that they are the true guardians of educational quality. Anyone remember the shocking state of our schools in the 1980s and early to mid-1990s?

October 2011 In Bristol, a packed event at the city's Watershed centre. Bristol is one of the most educationally divided of our cities, with large numbers of private schools and many shiny new academies that have not solved the class and ethnic divides. It now has a free school, largely for the benefit of families in a relatively affluent postcode. The head of a local comprehensive, who is already losing students to the new free school, sits listening quietly.

Later, I arrive with minutes to spare at a library in Newham, crowded with east London parents and teachers. The former children's laureate Michael Rosen is brilliantly fluent on the political meaning of school architecture, which he links back to the panopticon structure of 19th-century prisons. There's food for thought here. Many academies are built with no staffrooms, reinforcing the reduced bargaining power of teachers and the assault on teachers' unions that characterises the new, privatised landscape. I often get emails from teachers who are disturbed by the authoritarian and closed cultures - and impossible targets - within the new schools.

After an evening discussion at the Ilkley Playhouse, parents and governors approach me, furious at plans to convert the successful local comprehensive into an academy despite the opposition of almost all "stakeholders".

The government likes to suggest that schools are converting for the benefits of more autonomy and freedom. Not so, a governor at a highly successful comprehensive in London facing conversion tells me. The main reason for taking academy status? It's the money, stupid. "There are no freedoms that we need, nothing we couldn't really do before . . ."

November 2011 SchoolDuggery, an independent education blog, analyses the proportion of children on free school meals in 23 of the 24 new free schools. What a surprise - it is little over half the national average and, contrary to explicit government claims that free schools have been set up to "support the very poorest pupils", SchoolDuggery finds that, overall, these schools are "not taking a fair proportion of more deprived children".
I go to a debate at the Bishopsgate Institute on a curriculum for the 21st century, chaired by my Twitter friend Jeevan Vasagar. I work hard to appear cheerful but am amused to hear the sociologist Frank Furedi, formerly a star columnist of Living Marxism, put forward very similar arguments to Gove: poor children need knowledge, not soft skills. Who ever said they didn't? And why can't they develop both?

January 2012 Round two of a Woman's Hour debate with Anne McElvoy of the Economist, who likes to claim that comprehensive education was imposed by Stalinist diktat on an unwilling nation by previous Labour governments. Nonsense. It was massed parental revolt that led to the phasing out of the grammars. The issue lost the Tories the 1964 election, which is why they have never dared publicly to advocate the return of selection.
In Hackney, I am approached by a group of parents who want to open a new community school. But this is no longer possible, thanks to the Education Act 2011. From now on, only academies or free schools can be set up. At a community centre in Brent, north-west London, teachers, councillors and governors debate the intense financial pressure that local schools are under to convert to academies, even though Brent's fast-improving secondaries show what a local authority family can achieve.

Later in the month, I meet the articulate and angry parents of the Downhills school in Tottenham, who are battling against the forced conversion of their community primary with the vocal help of the local Labour MP and ex-pupil, David Lammy.

In Birmingham, a list of 12 suggested sponsors for "failing primaries" has been released, including three for-profit providers operating in the US with a decidedly mixed picture of success. Is this what we want for our neighbourhood schools?

The Downhills debacle has shifted the public mood. Gove's ill-judged comments about Trots and "enemies of promise" suggest that the minister is getting rattled. The case has certainly generated a lot of negative publicity.

February 2012 Meetings in both Kent and Lincolnshire, two of the local authorities that still retain the eleven-plus exam. In these counties, secondary schooling remains clearly divided along crude class lines, dividing and damaging communities. It seeps back into primary education, as one soft-spoken Kent head explains. Children lose their motivation by the beginning of year six, which is when they take the "Kent test", some of them barely ten years old. Either they have passed the eleven-plus and can't be bothered with the rest of their primary schooling or they have failed and feel demoralised, often for life. No one forgets failing the eleven-plus, as I realise when I meet a prominent academic at a seminar on School Wars in Cambridge: it is the first thing that she mentions to me.

Yet the coalition has given the green light to existing grammars to set up "satellites". Other local schools are now banned from lodging an objection, thanks to some nifty and dishonourable footwork around the admissions code.

Toby Young makes the absurd claim that objection to the government's policies is confined to a handful of campaigners such as myself. Discontent at coalition school policies has not reached anti-NHS reform levels but there is widespread unease at the speed of the fragmentation of state education, from a government with no overall mandate to do so. (In their 2010 election manifesto, the Lib Dems promised to scrap academies.) The most common question at the end of meetings is: "What can we do?"

In early February, the OECD publishes a report confirming that the best systems inter­nationally are non-selective; even streaming, it argues, depresses overall attainment and widens the class divide. When I debate these findings with the free school founder and pro-streamer Katharine Birbalsingh, she declares: "I love my bottom set!"

Meanwhile, figures released through a Freedom of Information request show that the West London Free School takes children with significantly higher ability levels (at Key Stage 2, the end of primary) than the average London secondary. The way the school markets itself no doubt encourages mostly families with higher-attaining children to apply.

March 2012 A turning point in the national debate as Henry Stewart, one of my co-founders of the campaigning website the Local Schools Network, analyses the 2011 GCSE results. On almost every measure, the much-maligned community schools outperform the politically and financially favoured academies. Strip out the vocational equivalents that Gove has recently repudiated and academy performance falls even more dramatically.

The Observer gives a whole page to the 2011 results story. Suddenly there is an official silence as thick and all-encompassing as snow. For a short while, we have rendered Gove and his combative allies speechless.

Melissa Benn writes for the Guardian and other publications on social issues, particularly education. She is the author of several books of non-fiction and two novels, including One of Us (2008), and reviews books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The end of socialism

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Bernie Sanders and the future of the American left

How an old, white guy is bringing class-based politics to the Democratic primary.

One thing is immediately striking: as he addresses primary rallies across America, arms flailing like a giant bird coming in to land, snow-white hair fizzing skywards like Doc Brown’s in Back to the Future, eyes startled behind the robust spectacles he has worn since childhood, Bernie Sanders looks quite unlike any other presidential candidate.

Perhaps the surprise in those eyes is sparked by the size of the crowds Sanders has been attracting. They are enormous, rivalling the numbers who turned out for Barack Obama back in 2008, and unprecedented for a candidate who is not shy of describing himself as a socialist: 28,000 in Portland and LA, 25,000 in Boston and 15,000 in Seattle. Even in Dallas, not a renowned centre of radicalism, 8,000 turned out to “feel the Bern”.

In these days when slick suits and expensive haircuts are increasingly a turn-off for a public weary of smooth politicians they see as delivering only for the wealthy, Sanders’s persona, like that of Jeremy Corbyn, his equally unkempt British counterpart, has proved popular. But it is his message – an angry chronicling of the depredations facing so many Americans and a solid social-democratic programme for putting things right – that is really pulling in the crowds. Sanders, who is 74, and the main challenger to Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, doesn’t just look different. With his confident calls for a “revolution” to break up the banks and impose higher taxes on the rich, he doesn’t sound like any other recent presidential contender, either.


I first met Bernie Sanders in 1996. I was the publisher of his book Outsider in the House, a political autobiography that appeared the following year (and which has just been reissued by Verso with a new foreword, and more than a hint of optimism, as Outsider in the White House). The occasion was a benefit concert during his successful bid to be re-elected to the House of Representatives from the small, rural state of Vermont.

Sanders’s early years are not well documented, least of all by him. He devotes less than three of the 300 pages in Outsider to the first three decades of his life. He doesn’t much care for the “humble roots” narrative beloved of so many politicians, generally millionaires whose ancestors lived in broken-down cabins. But the raw material is certainly there. The son of Polish immigrants, Sanders grew up in a working-class Jewish family in Flatbush, Brooklyn. At home, money was tight: “Every major household purchase . . . would be accompanied by a fight between my parents as to whether we could afford it,” he wrote.

It was an achievement to gain admission to the University of Chicago, and though he described himself as “not a good student”, that was a result of sacrificing coursework to the cause of social activism. He settled permanently in Vermont at the age of 27, having bought an 85-acre farm in the north of the state for $2,500. Four years later he moved to Burlington, the state capital, where he became involved in city politics, at first in the tiny Liberty Union Party and then as an independent. In 1981 he was inaugurated as mayor and commenced a series of tilts at the state’s congressional seat. He finally entered the House of Representatives in 1991 – the first independent candidate to enter Congress in 40 years.

By the time I encountered him, Sanders was seeking to defend his seat for the third time. The concert where we met was taking place in an old art-deco theatre in Brattleboro, perhaps the most hippiefied community in a state where tie-dye remains as ubiquitous as dairy herds. It was headlined by Pete Seeger, who ran through a panoply from his folk songbook to a packed crowd that knew all the words.

Ten years earlier, Mayor Sanders, a long-time admirer of Seeger, had recorded one of his songs, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone”, on a surreal folk/rap album. Now, he waited until Seeger had finished his set before taking the stage and, speaking in the only manner he seems to know – a gruff, shouted staccato – exhorted Vermonters to join him in the fight against Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole to stop the Republicans from taking over the presidency and the Senate. The response was rapturous. Sanders left the stage like a president concluding a State of the Union speech, gladhanding lines of admirers as he made his way out of the hall.

A few weeks later I met him again, this time at his congressional office in Washington, DC. On the wall of his office I spotted a plaque of Eugene Debs, who ran for Congress and the presidency on a socialist ticket, travelling to every part of the country on a train he called the Red Special and picking up 6 per cent of the popular vote in 1912, when he finished fourth, behind Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft.

Sanders had invited me to lunch and so we headed off through the underground passageway that leads from the office building to the congressional dining room. We were accompanied along the way by one of his assistants who, in true West Wing style, peppered him with questions and made notes on a clipboard as we walked. We had just started our food when John Kasich, then congressman for Ohio and now governor of the state and a contender for the Republican presidential nomination, wandered over for a chat. Despite Kasich’s reputation as a fiscal conservative, it was evident that he and Sanders had a cordial relationship, and indeed, Sanders invited him to join us for lunch.

It was difficult to reconcile these two contrasting snapshots of Sanders: the rousing air punch in Vermont and the bridge-building handshake in DC. But the more one looks into his career, the clearer it becomes that this dual approach is integral to his remarkable political ascent. Sanders plays it quite differently inside and out, but he plays both sides very hard.

“Bernie doesn’t see a contradiction between working within the system and campaigning to change it,” the journalist Matt Taibbi told me, recalling the time when he shadowed Sanders for several weeks in 2005 while researching a piece for Rolling Stone. “I remember one Thursday afternoon I made a snarky comment about members of the House already sneaking off home for a long weekend and how it seemed to me that many of them were pretty lazy. Bernie scolded me, insisting that most of the people in Congress work very conscientiously. He doesn’t believe the system functions for ordinary people, but he’s not cynical about it either.”

This point was reiterated by Heather Gautney, an associate professor of sociology at Fordham University in New York who previously worked as a researcher in Sanders’s Senate office. “Working with Bernie in DC, I realised what a difficult place it was for someone more interested in movement-building than passing legislation,” Gautney said. “But Bernie was known for getting substantial chunks of the Republican vote in Vermont and he used that same skill to connect with some pretty unlikely allies in Congress.”

Sanders’s legislative record is strikingly good. In the decade after the Republicans took over the House of Representatives in 1995 no other lawmaker attached more amendments to bills that were voted on. He achieved this by using his position as an independent to put together coalitions that spanned both of the main parties, and also by sheer hard work. In his Rolling Stone article, Taibbi describes Sanders waiting patiently for hours to table an amendment in the office of the House rules committee, “a tiny, airless closet deep in the labyrinth of the Capitol where some of the very meanest people on Earth spend their days cleaning democracy like a fish”.

Sanders’s method of working across party lines is not without its critics. Especially on the left, there are voices that wonder if the compromises that inevitably accompany playing the system in DC are too large. Many of Sanders’s positions on foreign policy have skewed towards the militarism and careless disregard for human rights that prevail among the Washington establishment. Although notably, and unlike Hillary Clinton, he opposed the initial vote on the Iraq War, Sanders voted for every bill that came before Congress to fund the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq. He has supported basing the new F-35 fighter plane at Burlington Airport in Vermont, despite widespread concern from residents about the environmental impact. And he did not oppose the Senate resolution that supported Israel’s attack on Gaza in 2014, which left as many as 2,200 Palestinians dead.

Sanders is clearly happier talking about problems inside the US than foreign policy. In his opening statement to last Saturday’s televised debate between the Democratic candidates, he segued awkwardly from condemning the attacks in Paris to excoriating America’s “rigged economy”. Yet on domestic issues, too, some of his stands have given progressives pause for thought: his opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-country trade agreement championed by Barack Obama, has always been grounded in an argument in favour of saving jobs for American workers, rather than any notion of international solidarity. His slowness in expressing support for the burgeoning Black Lives Matter movement, something which his campaign has latterly striven hard to correct, was less of a surprise to those aware of his consistent support for the police union while mayor of Burlington. And his position on guns (he voted against the Brady Bill, which mandated background checks on buyers of firearms) is the only area in which Clinton outflanks him to the left.

But perhaps the biggest issue for many progressives is Sanders’s decision to run for president through, rather than outside, the Democratic primary. Though he began his political career in the Liberty Union Party and has stood in every election since as an independent, he is, as Howard Dean, the progressives’ challenger in the Democratic primary of 2003/2004, put it, “basically . . . a Democrat . . . [who] votes with the Democrats 98 per cent of the time”.

As Sanders relates in Outsider in the House, faced in 1996 with the choice of backing Ralph Nader, “a personal friend and an exemplary progressive” running as an independent, or Bill Clinton, whose policies on health care, welfare reform, trade, gay marriage and military spending he sharply disagreed with, Sanders decided to “support” Clinton. “Perhaps ‘support’ is too strong a word,” he frets in the book. “I’m planning no press conferences to push his candidacy, and will do no campaigning for him. I will vote for him, and make that public.”

Sanders has called for a vote for the Democratic nominee in every presidential election since Jimmy Carter left office in 1981, and early this month, on ABC’s This Week, he appeared to have completed a long transition, asserting: “I am a Democrat now.”

This failure to build an electoral force outside the Democrats always leads to a dead end, according to Anthony Arnove, a prominent member of the International Socialist Organisation (ISO) who is also a publisher and literary agent representing a range of leftish writers, including Arundhati Roy. “We’ve seen it over and over,” Arnove said: “a left challenge fires up the base and is then defeated in the primaries by a centrist, or, more accurately, right-wing candidate, who goes on to betray everything those people were mobilised around.”

Sanders’s fundraising almost matched Clinton’s over the summer – in the third quarter they raised $26m and $28m, respectively – and in September he became the first candidate to attract more than a million individual donations. (The average donation to his campaign has been $30.) But his dip in the polls after Hillary’s strong performances in the first nationally televised primary debate, and then again at her House select committee hearing on the 2012 attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, suggests he will struggle to win the nomination. As of early November he trailed Clinton nationally by 25 points.

In Arnove’s view, Sanders “won’t get further than Super Tuesday [at the beginning of March], when he’ll direct his base to vote for Clinton. This is exactly how the Democrats become a graveyard for progressive politics, when what we desperately need are social movements that can remain independent of both establishment parties and push for their own agenda.”


The revolution to which Sanders often refers is a long way from the sort envisaged by Arnove’s ISO. He is pursuing a fairer capitalism, not its overthrow. “He’s not Trotsky,” as Taibbi put it to me. But there are those inside his campaign who think its primary focus should be building a grass-roots organisation capable of transcending the four-yearly coming together of presidential elections, to create a more permanent basis for a broad, progressive movement.

One such advocate is Adolph Reed, a writer and academic who is campaigning for Sanders in South Carolina. Working with local unions and Labor for Bernie Sanders 2016, which has 70,000 signed-up members, Reed sees the potential in using Sanders’s programme, with its emphasis on basic economic demands such as the minimum wage, universal health care and free college tuition, as a way of drawing together various groups campaigning around single issues such as housing and police racism.

For Reed, who is black, class trumps race as the key to building a movement. “In New Orleans everyone talked about Katrina as having a devastating effect on black people in the city, which of course it did. But when you analyse it, class was a much better predictor of who suffered most there,” he told me. The centre of a class-based movement, Reed argues, will have to be provided by the trade unions. “Despite the fashionability of protests without any specific demands or elected leaderships, no movement initiative is going to have staying power without being anchored in the trade unions.”

Recruiting the unions to work alongside Sanders’s campaign in the way Reed envisages isn’t easy. The American Federation of Teachers and the machinists’ union have already thrown in their lot with Hillary Clinton. And Richard Trumka, the president of the AFL-CIO (America’s national federation of trade unions), has warned individual unions against coming out for Sanders. But Reed can point to significant declarations of support, from postal workers and the National Nurses Union. The AFL-CIO chapters in Vermont and, more surprisingly, South Carolina have also backed his run.

“It’s important to keep Bernie in the race for as long as possible, but the ultimate objective is to develop structures that can continue beyond the election,” Reed said. “It’s premature to say what this network will look like, but Bernie’s campaign provides an important boost to putting it in place.”


From Jesse Jackson to Dennis Kuci­nich to Howard Dean, an array of people’s champions has made a splash in the recent history of Democratic presidential primaries. None, however, has been as explicitly critical of capitalism (or so gruff about it) as Bernie Sanders. His no-nonsense, class-based politics are a measure of how the disenchantment with the ideology of a free market that arrived like a train in the 1980s and ran off the rails in 2008 is now finding its way into the mainstream.

Up until now, the critical moments of left advance in America – the Seattle WTO protests, the anti-war movement, Occupy Wall Street, the campaign for gay rights and, today, Black Lives Matter – have occurred outside electoral politics. There are a couple of good reasons for this. The US electoral system, like Britain’s, makes third-party challenges extraordinarily difficult. And inside the Democratic Party these movements would have been crushed by a conservative leadership around the Democratic National Committee, put in place by Bill Clinton.

One result is a paucity of new progressive voices inside the party. At a moment when, as Gramsci once put it, the old order no longer works but the new order has not yet been born, Sanders, with his New Deal politics and firebrand demeanour, seems not so much a successor to the old order as a throwback to a time that pre-dates it, when politicians spoke with conviction and the society they represented was less unfair. As such, he provides a staging post for a new progressive consciousness (according to a poll by Pew at the end of 2011, more Americans aged 18 to 29 would prefer to live under socialism than under capitalism) that is not yet sufficiently coherent to enter mainstream politics in its own right, either through a serious third-party challenge or the transformation of the Democratic Party.

As a middle-class white man, Sanders has been able to get a pass to promote bold positions that someone with a less privileged identity might have found hard to sell. And his age, paradoxically, has proved not to be a disadvantage with a youthful constituency dismayed by the surrender to expedience that disfigures so much of contemporary American politics. His record has been constant over such a long period that, again like Jeremy Corbyn, he can be relied on not to sell out. Though his politics are less radical, his venerability provides a messianic cloak from the same closet as the one worn by Noam Chomsky, another hero for many young progressives.

So it’s not just today’s professionally polished politicians to whom Sanders presents a stark contrast. Recent progressive movements have embraced an identity politics that was much less prevalent when Sanders started out back in 1970s Vermont. In order to forge the sorts of alliances that are necessary to mount a credible challenge on the national political stage, they will likely have to borrow extensively from his unifying class politics. But their leadership will be younger, blacker, less straight and less masculine than Sanders. In that sense, he represents the last hurrah for the old white guy.

Colin Robinson is co-publisher at OR Books (, based in New York

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror