Passion for the big idea

24th September 2004 at 01:00
A Tribute to Caroline Benn: education and democracy. Edited by Melissa Benn and Clyde Chitty. With a foreword by Tony Benn. Continuum. pound;14.99.

Tim Brighouse gives full marks to a collection of essays in memory of an influential left-winger whose belief in the comprehensive ideal never wavered

This delightful book, co-edited by its subject's daughter, has two themes.

One is Caroline Benn's extraordinary life; the other one of her passions - the comprehensive ideal.

From former Labour MP Tony Benn we hear of his walking the visiting Caroline Middleton DeCamp, of wealthy Cincinnati Republican roots, back to her Oxford lodgings at the end of a 10-day visit to England in the late 1940s. "I saw three benches in front of the church where the Woodstock and Banbury roads converge and suggested we sit for a moment, carefully choosing the centre one so I could always remember where I had proposed."

He reminds us of Caroline's wider influence; of her novel, Lion in a Den of Daniels; and, most importantly, of her 1992 biography of Keir Hardie.

Widely acclaimed by, among others, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, this is one of the best accounts of how Labour came into being and emerged as a major force. We hear, too, of her courageous involvement in a committee to investigate the death of JFK; of death threats; of her ranking as a "dangerous red", higher than her husband's.

Contributors confirm her generosity in acting as a constant and indefatigable co-worker on a multitude of campaigns and writings. There are glimpses, too, of the mother and grandmother "who wrote stories for (her children and grandchildren) and listened endlessly to their accounts of school and their friends". An essentially private, loving couple (albeit constantly in the public eye), the Benns shared with others another love and passion: for great ideas rooted in social justice. The rest of the book is about one of these, the comprehensive ideal.

Melissa Benn's chapter, "On Dreams, Dilemmas, Class and Cities", sets the scene with a review of the comprehensive principle and its disputed place in the contemporary landscape. She compares the idea with other public goods such as the health service and the social desirability, especially in cities, of all local children attending the same school. These are similarly powerful complementary pieces outlining the comprehensive ideal's past success and future uncertain prospects.

Clyde Chitty, who, with Brian Simon, was Caroline's chief co-promoter of comprehensive schooling, contributes a chilling chapter on the eugenics movement and its stimulation of so many insidious, dangerous social consequences. We may be collectively morally righteous in congratulating ourselves on our stance against Nazi Germany and its eugenic theories, but Aldous Huxley's Brave New World was written as a warning, and, as Sally Tomlinson points out in another chapter, Tony Blair has probably never read - or has forgotten - the satirical warning message of Michael Young's The Rise of the Meritocracy.

It is Cyril Burt, a disciple of Francis Galton (a father of the eugenics movement in the 19th century), who attracts Chitty's main attention. The influence of "fixed ability and therefore predictable performance" has been enormous on supporters and opponents of the comprehensive ideal, and has frustrated its full implementation even when the battle has apparently been won, as Jane Shallice's account of Holland Park school in the 1960s shows.

Max Morris's chapter on setting up Willesden high school - now ironically transformed into the Capital Academy - underlines the same point and shows that if the comprehensive ideal is connected with democracy, in his day at least, it was honoured in the breach. In a similar, sepia-tinted recollection, Maurice Plaskow reflects on what makes a truly comprehensive curriculum and on the damage done by the 1988 national curriculum. The guts of the argument, however, lie in the chapters from Melissa Benn, Geoff Whitty and Clyde Chitty, with illuminations from Andy Green, Susanne Wiborg and John Clay.

The world in which the common underlying comprehensive values and principles operate has changed from the days when Caroline Benn started the campaign. After all, in the 1960s we still ran a schooling system in which the "ineducable" (pupils in junior training centres, before they became severely subnormal schools) were the responsibility of the medical profession rather than teachers. What underlies these principles is a passion for social justice allied to an unshakeable belief among school staff that all children can be transformed and walk a step or two with genius - and that's best done together.

What this book reveals is that the time is right to rethink these principles in the light of present conditions, regroup and fight again. Now most larger cities - not only London - are multi-ethnic, multi-faith and multilingual. In a runaway world of easy, rapid communication, the developing and the developed world, the rich and poor, live cheek by jowl.

The market is rampant and the rich less willing than ever to educate their teenagers alongside those of the undeserving poor.

Somebody needs to take on board the founding principles of comprehensive education, and add to them the dimension of inclusion and internationalism, so we can see what an international inclusive school would look and feel like. Then our campaign would be clear and unambiguous about the secondary education we want all to experience together.

We need to campaign urgently for a three-pronged systemic change to enable that to happen. First, pupils reaching levels 1-3 in key stage 2 tests should be made more financially attractive to secondary schools. So a premium of say pound;3,500 for level 3, pound;4,500 for level 2 and pound;5,500 for level 1 (pound;500 of the sum would be spent by parents on approved "extra" education) could enable all the bureaucratic trappings of special needs funding to be swept aside.

Second, the financial accountability and inspection systems should require schools to work in groups - federations or collegiates - so secondary education is seen as more than belonging to and depending on the single school. Only in this way will pupils of different faiths, races and class backgrounds have a chance to be educated within a broadly balanced community.

Finally, let's double parental choice and, in the process, draw its sting.

As well as the normal secondary school application system, give parents a parallel second chance to apply for a "nominated state scholar" place. This could be achieved simply by requesting that every maintained school reserve 15 per cent of its places for "nominated state scholars". If a school is oversubscribed, fill those places by giving priority to children of whom neither parent has enjoyed higher education.

Then let's outface the opposition. Of course we need to know from where the opposition might come. According to her husband, Caroline attributed her disappointment in the progress of the comprehensive ideal to Blair's advisers, "from whom so many of the present policies seem to have sprung".

Caroline Benn abhorred those who didn't share her commitment to social justice and she had an inbuilt detector of the shallow, the second-rate, and what the Americans call crap.

Tim Brighouse is chief adviser for London schools

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