Master of inquiry and insight

19th November 2004 at 00:00
Representative Sadleriana: Sir Michael Sadler (1861-1943) on English, French, German and American Schools and Society. A perennial reader for academics and the general public

Compiled by Jack Sislian With a foreword by Sir William Taylor Nova Science Publishers pound;75.50

Available from Gazelle Books

Few British educationists of the 19th and 20th centuries have left such a mark on the history of education as Michael Sadler.

Although for almost six decades he was involved with education in a number of fields (as lecturer, civil servant, researcher, writer and university administrator), he is perhaps best remembered as a pioneer of a methodological approach to comparative education. It is through this approach that he was able to draw attention to many problems facing teachers and administrators which are still pertinent. A glance through this edited collection of his writings makes clear the liveliness of his arguments, and the insights he was able to provide into issues such as the role of the state in English education and the relationship between government and universities.

A doctor's son born in Barnsley, Yorkshire, Sadler was educated at Rugby and Trinity College, Oxford, where he came into contact with TH Green, the idealist philosopher, and Arthur Acland, the future minister of education in Gladstone's last government. His tendency towards political and economic radicalism was reinforced when he heard Arnold Toynbee deliver a paper at Oxford in 1882 on the factory movement (Sadler was a great-great-nephew of MT Sadler, the factory reformer). Three years later he succeeded Acland as secretary of the standing committee of the Oxford Delegacy for Local Examinations, which offered courses of lectures outside the university to working-class people.

His reputation as an efficient administrator and extension lecturer grew over the next 10 years and led to his appointment as a member of the Royal Commission on Secondary Education in 1894. Sadler played a leading part and is thought to have written much of the final report. Shortly afterwards, he joined Acland and Tom Ellis, the Welsh Nationalist MP, for a holiday in Switzerland. It was there that Sadler suggested that English education would benefit by the setting up of a bureau to make enquiries into other education systems and publish comparative reports, based on the model of the bureau of education in Washington, whose work Sadler had seen on his first visit to the United States in 1890.

Acland, now vice-president of the government's committee council on education, established an Office of Special Inquiries and Reports with Sadler as director. Over the next five years, Sadler's researchers produced 11 volumes of reports on many education systems. The reports threw much light on English contemporary problems and were of use to government in formulating policy on the teaching of foreign languages, the education of girls and women and control of the curriculum. The project was only brought to an end by a dispute between Sadler and Robert Morant, permanent secretary to the recently established Board of Education and Sadler's former assistant director. Sadler resigned from the directorship and undertook surveys of 10 local education authorities following the expansion of secondary education after the 1902 Education Act, which show the influence of Sadler's foreign studies in their analysis and recommendations.

He also conducted studies of contemporary educational issues in England, such as the need for continuation schools, the scholarship system and moral instruction and training (the latter being an international inquiry which generated a two-volume report). He was attracted, as were other English idealists, to the German system of education, though the experience of two world wars led to some disillusionment. "German and American Ideals in Education", reproduced here, is an interesting paper in one of the volumes of the Special Inquiries Reports.

"Comments on the History of Education in England", published in 1939 and also included, was based on a series of lectures given while Sadler was a part-time professor at Manchester University.

The first half of the book is devoted to "The Englishness of Education" and the shorter second half to "Influence in English Education from Abroad". It is not a reader-friendly book and is unlikely to entice those who do not already know Sadler's work. The criteria for inclusion are not stated, there is no help for the reader in tracing the provenance of the writings and the chapters are not in chronological order. There is a brief introduction and an opportunity has been missed to give introductions to each of the sections.

Nevertheless, as Sir William Taylor points out in a foreword, it is to be welcomed by modern audiences who wish "to become familiar with the ideas of a man whose scholarship, liberal and humane temperament, and understanding of the relations of education and society, constituted a major contribution to 20th-century educational thought".

Peter Gordon is emeritus professor of education at the Institute of Education, University of London

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