Tony Benn: Comprehensive Education and Lifelong Learning

Tony Benn has died but his legacy of thoughtful, egalitarian politics lives on in the many people who, like him, tirelessly campaign for equality and social justice.

Tony Benn

Ed Miliband said of Benn “He will be remembered as the champion of the powerless, a great parliamentarian and a conviction politician.”

Tony Benn held many causes dear to his heart – from the rights of trade unionists to unilateral nuclear disarmament, from the need for constitutional reform to the fundamental belief in the welfare state. He also believed that those in power should be held accountable at all times for the decisions they were making.

Miliband also said, “Tony Benn spoke his mind and spoke up for his values. Whether you agreed with him or disagreed with him, everyone knew where he stood and what he stood for.”

How many of us demonstrate our convictions so eloquently and consistently, firmly sticking to our values in all that we do?

Tony Benn was also fully committed to a comprehensive system of education. This is a value that he shared with his late wife Caroline.

Caroline and tony Benn

In 1982 Caroline Benn wrote,

“We give up our commitment to looking for gifts, talents and abilities in the vast majority of children once we have accepted the argument that the search for “giftedness” is limited to the hunt for a few . . . The way we can support “giftedness” (whatever it may mean) is by encouraging a flexible, alert,  high-standard, stimulating and supportive comprehensive education service for everyone at every stage of their lives . . . A comprehensive system is the only way we can openly ensure attention to all equally and, at the same time, protect and reveal the full range of human gifts. Encouraging human ability in all its various forms is just one more reason why we must continue to work to get a genuine comprehensive education system safely started in Britain – and to promote it relentlessly when we have.”

This is as true now, over thirty years later, as it was then. Maybe one of the most befitting tributes that the Labour Party could give now is to honour the values advocated by both Tony and Caroline Benn, and commit fully to the ideals and principles of comprehensive education – which means all young people have access to a “flexible, alert, high-standard, stimulating and supportive comprehensive education service”.

Governance does matter and whilst many academies do provide a comprehensive education, their very existence – and that of free schools – creates division in the state system. Funding and accountability is different. Academies and Free Schools don’t have to follow the National Curriculum. One rule for one, one rule for others: totally against the principles that Tony Benn believed in, totally ignoring the concept of universal entitlement. This is why the issue of governance can’t be ignored.

Where Caroline Benn talks of “the full range of human gifts”, we would say “the full range of human intelligences”. A truly comprehensive education would acknowledge each and every person’s abilities and provide encouragement to facilitate learning in whichever field is chosen by a child. That means that a qualification in hairdressing or plumbing would have the same value and worth as a qualification in history or physics. Utopian it may be, but that is what a real comprehensive system would support.

Furthermore, true comprehensive education would enable learners to develop all of their intelligences and not just, or mainly, intellect and academic attainment. A truly comprehensive system would value not just knowledge but how people use knowledge – how they develop their social intelligence, their personal intelligence and their ability to empathise, intuit, create and imagine.

Tony Benn wholeheartedly believed in life-long learning and the importance of making learning meaningful to all.

“The real priority must be to re-establish the relationship between education and real life, throughout the whole of life. To raise the school leaving age to 75 is the only sensible objective of education policy.”

(He later admitted, having received a disgruntled letter from a 92 year old man who had just completed a degree, that perhaps 75 was too early an exit from education.)

And it’s this to which we should aspire: life-long, personalised learning – accessible for all.

 “In campaigning for education, we are campaigning for the enrichment of human life, for opportunities that have been denied to earlier generations of working people.” Tony Benn

Please let this be his legacy – that the main aim of education is to enrich human life but also to appreciate every aspect of human life and value all of our intelligences, talents and abilities equally.

Here’s a clip from YouTube with Tony Benn talking about education for life:

Quotes from this short clip:

The purpose of education is to discover the genius in every child, not to grow them like eggs for the market.”

“Everybody, in my judgement, has immense talent and ability. You have to discover it and bring it out. That’s the case against classifying people according to some objective intellectual test.”

“The other thing about education is the absurdity of supposing that it’s something that happens at the beginning of life . . .  because education has got to be an escalator going alongside you throughout life and you get on the escalator and off the escalator whenever you feel like.”

“And now the comprehensive idea’s come in, there’s a recognition that everybody is entitled to have  access to knowledge. And I don’t think the people at the top are very keen about that. There’s a great suspicion of public education because educated people are much harder to control and uneducated people are told what to do.”

“Education is the key to progress and if people understand the world in which they live in they’re much more able to control it in their own interests . . . I think that liberation that comes from knowledge is something of enormous importance in the world in which we now live.”

May both Caroline and Tony rest in peace in the knowledge that there are still people fighting for justice in education and are wholeheartedly committed to the values of a truly comprehensive system.

Tony Benn [1]

Our thoughts are with Tony Benn’s family, to whom we express our appreciation and our gratitude.

About 3D Eye

Gary Foskett and Clare Blackhall are educationalists, writers and consultants. We work with schools and other organisations who share our vision of how schools, businesses, etc should work in the 21st Century. We also run courses and contribute to conferences - speaking about our three dimensional model of intelligences and how schools, colleges and universities can develop the full potential of all their staff and students. We also offer consultancy for businesses and public sector organisations to support staff training and organisational change and development. For more detailed information read our blog at or see our website at
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