The Hillcole Group was founded in 1989. It was constituted as a radical Left response to the formation of the Hillgate Group of Radical Right educators in the late-1980s. The Group was established with a three-pronged mission: to seek to influence policy and decision-making on educational matters; to respond to assaults on the quality of education from the Radical Right; and to improve the quality of schooling, and of teacher education. The early publications of the Hillcole Group were largely focused on the second aim: to aid in the repulsion of Radical Right outlooks on education and life in general, to critique their theories and policies and to uncover the ways these were affecting schooling, further education and teacher education.
Caroline Benn joined the Hillcole Group in its early days. She made a significant contribution to our Changing the Future: Redprint for Education (1991). The Redprint still constitutes the most comprehensive and significant attempt from the educational Left to offer an alternative education strategy. It was clear, from the experience of writing Redprint, that we had not only to critique and expose the degeneration of the educational system but also offer radical alternatives. There is no doubt that Caroline's insight and vision was the catalyst that expanded the mission of the Hillcole Group substantially during the early to mid-1990s. Whilst she obviously acknowledged the need for critique of education policies that increased social inequality, policies designed to suppress expectations and subsume education under a business agenda for neoliberalism, she also stressed the need to offer alternatives. The Group moved forward on the basis of Caroline's outlook, and from the mid-1990s we became more confident, less defensive and more forward-looking. She encouraged the Group towards exploring prospects for the new century. The confident stance that Caroline fired generated the confidence to 'put ourselves on the line', and to express our shared principles and ideas regarding the foundations of the sort of education system, work organisation and society we all yearned for and believed was necessary for human survival and liberation.
The result of this re-definition of ourselves was Rethinking Education and Democracy: A Socialist Alternative for the 21 st Century (1997). The eighteen months leading up to the publication of Rethinking was a period of intense debate at our meetings. As Dave Hill has said elsewhere, 'every line was fought over'. For those involved in the Rethinking project it was an exciting, but exhausting time. The intensity of debate on educational theory, policy, history, principles and practice was experienced to a degree few of us had found elsewhere. This was 'education, education, education', raw and live! Caroline Benn kept this all together, and with Clyde Chitty she ensured that ideas were transformed into text. Caroline played a leading role in welding our debates and ideas into a coherent whole. She was absolutely determined that although individuals held views on education most deeply, a collective view emerged. That it did was mainly due to Caroline and the organisational work of Janet Holland. It was whilst we were in the throes of working on Rethinking that we discovered that Caroline was seriously ill. Her courage and fortitude in the face of a life-sapping illness amazed and inspired us to share and develop the full range of Caroline's wonderful vision for education in the 21 st century.
The process of producing Rethinking was democracy in practice, but this process was kept on track principally by Caroline's determination to make the democratic process work for society's future. She brought her tremendous wealth of knowledge on comprehensive education and post-compulsory education, her experience and capacity to inspire to focus on Rethinking. Caroline mobilised passionate, volatile and committed Hillcole Group members into a united force that could articulate the foundations for a democratic and open education system based on the need for social equality and respect for difference. Caroline related to us after Rethinking was published that someone had exclaimed to her: "But how did you get this lot to agree!" For the Rethinking project, Caroline sought to ensure that a democratic, collective process that had a place for passion and commitment could 'produce the goods'. We all shared this view. But Caroline's steered the Group through the storm of debate to agree on principles underpinning a truly socialist education for the 21st century.
The late 1990s saw the Group engaged with the realisation that the election of Tony Blair's New Labour in 1997 was not going to shift the scenery around in the educational firmament significantly. After expending tremendous energy on establishing our principles and strategy in Rethinking, Hillcole shifted into critique mode once more. Caroline recognised the absolute necessity of exposing the implications and consequences of New Labourite education policies for social justice and opportunity in all sectors of education (nursery, primary, secondary, post-compulsory). In particular, she was critical of how New Labour was viewing education as just another line of business and encouraging the penetration of all sectors of education by business interests what Caroline went on to dub the "businessification" of education. Caroline spoke at the Hillcole Conference in October 1999, 'Business, Business, Business New Labour's Education Agenda', and exposed the impoverished business-friendly aspects of New Labour's education policy. With Clyde Chitty, she also wrote the concluding chapter to our pamphlet, Business, Business, Business: New Labour's Education Policy (1999). Yet in both her Conference presentation and in her article with Clyde she stressed the need to think beyond the follies of contemporary education policies. For Caroline, those who vent criticism and anger at what is happening to our schools, colleges and universities also have a responsibility to spell out clearly and succinctly what the alternatives are. As she noted in her conclusion to the Business, Business, Business pamphlet of 1999 (written with Clyde Chitty):
If we on the Left want to help people to trust in the education service in exchange for more developments that are on our terms we have to think these terms out more carefully in order to generate widespread support for an alternative. Every time we criticise changes being made, we must suggest what changes are required instead. It is much harder to do this but that is what the Hillcole Group was formed to do.
This is the challenge that Caroline has etched into the hearts of the Group: to seek ways out of the labyrinth of socially regressive education policies and to struggle for a socialist future and an education worth its name, fired by the principles of social justice and opportunity for all. These are ambitious aims, and there is much work to do!
From 1999, the Group held its meetings at Caroline's house. Despite her worsening health she was determined to be involved and her orientation towards the future of education and society was fantastic in the circumstances. During 1999, she read and commented on Patrick Ainley's Hillcole pamphlet, From Earning to Learning: What is Happening to Education and the Welfare State which was published shortly before she died. At our meeting in February 2000 we discussed the next move after our 1999 Conference. Imelda Gardiner (who died in May 2000) proposed that the Group organise a further Conference where alternatives to New Labour's education policy would be the focus. Further discussion unfolded the need to bring together the disparate forces of the educational Left in time for the General Election that many experts believed would take place in April or May 2001. Caroline energetically threw herself into this enterprise! Letters were fired off, phone calls made; progress reports back to the Group were voiced at our organising meetings, and Caroline's enthusiasm was a vital spark. Her crucial groundwork was a key condition for the Conference (supported by leading groups and individuals from the educational Left), coming to life, but as one of the Conference's originators and sponsors she never saw its realisation.
Caroline continued to support the work of the group, right up to the last few weeks of her life. On 31 st October, Glenn Rikowski received a hand-written letter from Caroline with comments on his forthcoming Hillcole pamphlet, The Battle in Seattle: its Significance for Education (2001). She asked Glenn to excuse the writing as she had written the comments whilst lying on her back in bed. The comments were helpful, critical but most of all encouraging and supportive.
For the Hillcole Group, the 'Promoting Comprehensive Education for the 21st Century' Conference is dedicated to the memory of Caroline Benn. The vision, insight and determination to struggle to the end of her life for a transformative education for all that opens windows on a socialist future will never be forgotten. We shall miss her wisdom, wide-ranging knowledge on education matters, and the warmth of her personality. But her spirit and example live on wherever people gather together to create forms of teaching and learning that liberate the mind and seek to treat people as equals through democratic processes where people shape their own futures.
The Hillcole Group of Radical Left Educators
20 th January 2001