Lawton's journal

15th July 2005 at 01:00
He has chronicled the politics and the policies of a developing curriculum and provided accessible commentary on education theory. Bob Moon applauds a homage to Denis Lawton

Educational Commonplaces: essays to honour Denis Lawton

Edited by David Halpin and Paddy Walsh

Institute of Education pound;17.99

To order tel 0207 612 6050

I first met Denis Lawton in 1968. He had a room in the attic of the old London University Institute of Education building and I was being interviewed for admission to a diploma course. It was hardly an interview, more Denis probing my views on the large Lambeth comprehensive I then taught in. He was particularly interested in teachers' attitudes to the growing population of black boys and girls in London schools. The interview over-ran by nearly an hour.

Later I came to know that this was the sort of intellectual engagement and consideration that Denis brought to all his work. His weekly lectures were a high spot of my diploma course. They gave me a fascination with curriculum and the social context of schooling that I drew heavily on, first in schools and then at the Open University.

David Halpin and Paddy Walsh have edited a superb festschrift for Denis Lawton's career. The affection and admiration in which he is held shines through in the contributions from a range of very distinguished academics.

Taken as a whole the book is as good a record as you can find of the past 30 years of policy-making around schooling and curriculum. Astute editorial direction has ensured that all the chapters make connections with contemporary events. Geoff Whitty, for example, describes how both Kenneth Baker and David Blunkett missed an important opportunity in ignoring the Lawton idea of a "common culture curriculum". Barbara MacGilchrist and Richard Aldrich explore in separate chapters the sustained critique Lawton has made of the implicit 19th-century model of pedagogy that still pervades our school system.

Over many years Denis Lawton has been a sort of Boswell to what we now call the DFES. His papers and books provide a rich chronology of the shifts of power and responsibility between government, schools and local education authorities. Like many of us, Lawton was prepared to embrace the first formulations of a national curriculum. The way it evolved, however, and the naivety of the politicians and planners, became the subject of a sustained Lawton critique. England and, to a lesser extent, Northern Ireland and Wales, invented a particularly virulent form of regulatory curriculum. The continental tradition of content prescription was joined with a North American predeliction for testing. It was an uneasy mixture and one the immature, newly centralised system found hard to direct.

In a fascinating chapter Clyde Chitty explores the way in which the whims of a very few people in the Downing Street policy unit became more powerful than any of the other interest groups, including teachers. The crudeness with which that power can sometimes be exercised might be the stuff of politics, but can make for some decidedly ropey policy-making. All the pressures of research selectivity now push education professors to ever more specialised writing and research.

This was not Denis Lawton's way. Apart from his seminal work on curriculum and culture, he has also engaged fully with the post-1988-Act debate on assessment (see the chapter by Val Klenowski), written successful social study textbooks and resources and, as Peter Gordon describes, made important contributions to the history of education.

Denis Lawton has always made connections between the disparate strands of educational theory; hence the relevance of his work to teachers and his influence on them. Most importantly, he writes extremely well with a facility for expressing complex ideas in clear, uncluttered prose.

Perhaps Lawton's most important contribution was to demonstrate how wider cultural issues and political ideologies shape curriculum thinking. Richard Pring, in pursuing some of the same ideas as Geoff Whitty, contrasts the Lawton idea of a curriculum, "a kind of hypothesis: a set of statements which need to be tested out in the classroom" with more recent government led "prescriptions to be applied, a kind of science of successful teaching and learning if only one were to follow the well-founded instructions faithfully".

Lawton, Pring and many of the other contributors here favour the more thoughtful, deliberated approach. Ironically, that is the way national policy around the curriculum appears to be evolving. A much more flexible national curriculum, the reining back of standardised testing and the acknowledgement that, yet again, we have to revisit the structure of curriculum post-14 all indicate the futility of over-tight prescription.

The field of debate opened up by people like Denis Lawton was never more relevant.

This is a collection of essays to honour a distinguished academic. It succeeds splendidly. But it is also a book that honours an institution. I know Denis would agree. "The Institute" is crucial to the present and future of the British education system, and this collection shows why.

Bob Moon is professor of education at the Open University

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