Memory lane

15th September 2006 at 01:00
Tim Brighouse smiles, fumes and squirms at a collection that charts the past three decades of education policy

Tracing Education Policy: Selections from the Oxford Review of Education

Edited by David Phillips and Geoffrey Walford

Routledge pound;85

At first glance this book shouldn't be too surprising. Yet a selected collection of the best articles submitted to one of the most respected academic journals in education from Oxford is a minor miracle. The university, rooted in the scholarly elitism of more traditional subjects, has sometimes looked down its collective nose at its Cinderella department of educational studies - ah, what subtle academic messages the word "studies" conveys - located in a couple of houses close to the parks.

Indeed, there have been times when the university considered closing the department.

That it did not is down almost entirely to its last two directors, Harry Judge and Richard Pring, both remarkable educators and both incidentally (and unlikely in the Oxford context) passionate advocates and supporters of comprehensive education.

Judge, one of the giants of the golden age of post-1944 British education, founded the pioneering and federal Banbury school and was a member of the James committee on the teaching profession before becoming the director of what was an old fashioned education department interested in a dilettante way in the training of secondary teachers, most of whom were destined for the grammar and public sectors. I know, I was one.

Under Judge's intellectually stimulating and often mischievous leadership the department bound itself more securely to the bosom of the university while simultaneously connecting itself in a unique partnership with Oxfordshire's 40-plus comprehensive schools, not least by pioneering the first school-based "internship" model for initial teacher education.

In the 1970s, apart from making allies of the university administrators and securing his department's reputation for professional development with serving teachers, Judge founded the Oxford Education Research Group while supporting the launch of the Oxford Review of Education. These were the first steps in establishing Oxford as a centre which under Pring has become one of very few university education departments with an excellence rating for both research and initial training.

This book represents a trip down the memory lane of recent educational history. It's a very well selected collection of essays about the formulation of educational policy in what it describes as four periods: the post-war liberal consensus up to the time of Callaghan's great debate starting in the mid-1970s; the period from then until 1988 when Thatcher was too preoccupied with the economy and employment to give much attention to education (in effect, the lull before the storm); the revolution inspired by market forces and affecting curriculum, governance and funding, ushered in by the 1988 Education Act and lasting until the election of New Labour in 1997; and the period from 1997 to the present, which feels like a lifetime.

The Review's opening issue in 1975 set what was to be its unique tone in three ways. First, it has always been prepared to devote a whole issue to consideration of a single theme: on that occasion "Equality and Education".

Second, it was able from the beginning to assemble a cast of star contributors. Third, it made sure that its contributors would disagree. So, in this collection, after two closely argued contributions from Mary Warnock and AH Halsey, there's an article from Hans Eysenck which even now makes your blood run cold with its reminder of academics still in love with eugenics and an exclusive view of intelligence.

In volume 10, Caroline Cox and John Marx - remember the Black Paper? - do battle with Ken Fogelman, Peter Clifford and Anthony Heath on the interpretation of exam results to support either side of the comprehensive versus selective argument. Nothing changes.

The contribution I enjoyed most, however, is from 1998 and written by Stuart Maclure. Apart from its accessibility - you'd expect nothing less from a former editor of The TES - the article is a comprehensive, incisive and compelling analysis of the turmoil we've lived through in education over these years. In particular, his assumption that the perceived "failure" of the schooling system would continue whatever the data and other evidence show, continues to prove depressingly accurate. His expectations of New Labour and their love affair with the market place are also uncannily close to the mark.

There's much else in this volume including a deeply flawed but stimulating piece about "choice", by James Tooley, whose star (like that of so many on the radical right) seems to have sunk below the horizon as his ideas have become mainstream. Geoff Whitty and Tony Edwards on specialisation and selection, Sally Tomlinson on special education, Anne West on school admissions and, fittingly, Judge and Pring on faith schools and 14-19 education respectively are further examples of the mine of well-argued cases you will find in this book.

The only sadness is that as it's become more scholarly with multiply-refereed articles The Oxford Review has lost the audience of policymakers and senior civil servants who used to regard it as compulsory reading. Decisions about policy are poorer as a result.

Tim Brighouse is chief adviser to the London Schools Challenge

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