A learning democracy;Book of the week;FE Focus;Books

19th February 1999 at 00:00

THE THEORY of "new sociology of education" was described in Knowledge and Control: new directions for the sociology of education, which Michael Young edited in 1971. The new book collects his subsequent work, to show the direction Michael has taken since then. It is therefore of vital interest to anyone concerned with the development of that increasingly rare commodity - critical education theory.

Knowledge and Control was published when comprehensive reform was still, as Margaret Thatcher described it, an "unstoppable roller-coaster". However, the structural reform of schools was not accompanied by curricular reform. As a result, the new comprehensives competed with the remaining grammars and the unmolested private schools on terms defined by the academic exam boards and Oxbridge. Knowledge and Control pointed to the need for comprehensive curricular reform.

As the work, valuably collected together here for the first time makes clear, opportunities for change came as unemployment rose after 1973 and a "new sixth form" stayed on in schools and colleges.

Michael Young and his post-16 centre at the London University Institute of Education became associated with pre-vocational initiatives such as CPVE, TVEI and, later, GNVQs, as well as the trail-blazing credit accumulation framework of the Further Education Unit.

The apogee of these efforts, which this book records, came with the publication by the Institute for Public Policy Research of A British Baccalaureate in 1990. It recommended a five-subject bac instead of A-levels and remains, Michael considers, "the most comprehensive critique of post-compulsory education in England and Wales that has yet appeared".

Michael found the most fertile reception for his Curriculum of the Future in further education for, as this collection shows, post-16 did not include HE. Indeed, one of the centre's arguments for a British baccalaureate is that it would provide a better preparation for an unchanged academic higher education.

Throughout the 1980s therefore, Michael and his centre could only affect the experience of the minority of all 16 to 18-year-olds on sub-A-level courses.

Now of course things have changed again. With a common - if academic - national curriculum with which to raise standards of pre-16 "foundation learning" in schools, "structures" are again becoming determinant, as New Labour's schools policy widens what Clyde Chitty calls "selection by specialisation".

Yet only in the last section of his book does Michael recognise the Government's "learning society" ideal as "a contested concept".

In opposition to current approaches, he advocates a "critical theory of learning".

This would make learning about learning central to the human sciences.

It would also imply making connections beyond the present administrative "partnerships" between "stakeholders", indicating instead a democratic "curriculum of the future". It is at this radical conclusion that Michael finally arrives.

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