Why the Goves are right to choose state education but wrong about history | Melissa Benn

I'm pleased with their school choice but they ignore the fact it was the left that fought for all children to have a broad education

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?

Not at all. But, on reflection, I realise that the piece is as significant for what it does not say as the arguments it makes. And here, perhaps unsurprisingly, it shares many of the faults of the current government.

First, the all-too-human context. Vine readily acknowledges that Greycoats Hospital, the school that she and her husband have chosen for their daughter, is far from typical. It has a complex admissions system largely related to faith criteria, but with some places reserved for students with an aptitude for languages.

Second, coalition policy and practice have hardly followed through on the non-selective principles that Vine so enthusiastically espouses, be that in its covert support for expansion of the grammars to the establishment of highly selective and costly free school sixth forms or the usual extravagant, irrelevant praise heaped on private schools.

But the deepest silence concerns that all-important territory – the past. Gove has often argued that it is the Tories rather than the "progressive left" that best promote the interests of the poor in education.

Really? Hands up those who remember that while Labour supported comprehensive education from the mid-1950s onwards, the Tories largely clung on to their support for the 11-plus, the greatest form of mass discouragement to working-class aspiration ever devised? Does no one now recall how it was those on the political right who blithely used to claim that only a few children were worth educating properly and that anyone who claimed otherwise was hopelessly utopian?

In short, the current consensus on the vital necessity of giving all our children a broad and stimulating education is the result of decades of patient campaigning and pedagogic effort by thousands of teachers, academics, parents, politicians and students, most of whom were to be found on the so-called progressive left.

I know this only too well, as I spring directly from this tradition. Forty years ago, I was the child of a prominent political couple, in this case on the Labour side, who decided to eschew the expected private education for their children in favour of a neighbourhood comprehensive, Holland Park.

To their credit, my parents, Tony and Caroline Benn, not only refused to buckle under considerable personal pressure to reverse this decision but continued to support the comprehensive cause for the rest of their lives. My mother remained a governor of Holland Park for more than 25 years as well as becoming a highly respected scholar of the history of the movement for comprehensive reform and a campaigner for sustained educational change.

So I am well placed to remember how pioneers like my mother and thousands of others were accused of every crime from disrespecting parental choice to failing to understand working-class aspiration to the toleration of unacceptably low standards – criticisms that have continued steadily into recent times, as I know from my own campaigning on these issues.

I am very glad for the Goves that they have attracted little criticism in opting for a state school in 2014. I am even more delighted that comprehensive education is now recognised as synonymous with excellence.

But it does not stop me feeling a genuine anger at the wilful amnesia of so much contemporary educational debate. From where I sit, it seems that many in the coalition, particularly on the Tory frontbenches, evince not a smidgen of interest in or understanding of the political legacy whose victory they now claim, in twisted form, as their own. They stand on the shoulders of giants while happily claiming it is their own two feet. Bad enough to be so ignorant of the history but, in politics as in life, it is the sheer absence of humility that grates the most.


Melissa Benn

The GuardianTramp

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