Telling stories about comprehensive education: hidden histories of politics, policy and practice in post-war England

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review



This article re-visits contestation and critique over the nationwide introduction of comprehensive schools in 20th century England. In so doing, it considers the contribution of scholar-activist Caroline Benn (1926-2000) and a progressive network in education who were challenging ideas about fixed ability or potential. The recent availability of Benn’s personal papers opens an opportunity for a deeper understanding of the politics of comprehensive education, to consider the meaning and significance of the policy as our historical perspective lengthens, notably the question of whether legislation was needed to implement so major a reform and foster cultural change in a society characterized by substantial inequalities in income, status and power. It will be argued that we need to challenge contemporary political narratives that seek to normalize academic selection as a force for social justice and high attainment and maintain a belief in the myth of meritocracy.


Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)649-669
Number of pages21
JournalBritish Journal of Educational Studies
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 3 Dec 2020


  • Comprehensive, educability, education, intelligence, meritocracy, selection