The past echoes on into the future

21st November 1997 at 00:00
Standards in Education, three representatives of the beleagued sector explain why their work is so important

The study of the history of education was named and shamed some years ago in a manner that has since become familiar to regular readers of The TES. In short order it was excluded from initial teacher education like an unruly child, dismissed like a bad teacher, and closed down like a failing school.

In vain did its supporters protest that such moves endangered not only "history" but "theory"; that education would soon be viewed merely as a set of technical skills, rather than in terms of its base in the wider society and culture. None of this was to be allowed: for the past decade it has been banished from colleges and departments of education, and confined to the margins of educational research.

The latest debate over research offers few signs of rolling back this tide. Yet it is possible to detect the first stirrings of a new dawn, an alternative future, in the education policies of the new Government.

Its first White Paper, Excellence In Schools, was based in a historical argument about the "deep and historic roots" of contemporary problems in education. It suggested that, unlike in many industrialised nations, the importance of mass education was neglected in England and Wales at the end of the 19th century, and has been only slowly recognised during the 20th century.

How far is this view valid? Does education really promote economic performance, and if so how? Why has our education system failed the ordinary child, and how can this be put right? The White Paper raises a set of challenging issues that historians, among others, need urgently to address.

At the same time, Professor Michael Barber, one of the leading lights of the new administration, has waxed lyrical in The TES about the inspiration provided by the 1943 White Paper, Educational Reconstruction. This evocation is interesting and important in itself, but are there also flaws and other lessons from the "class of 1944" that need to be digested and drawn on as we approach the 21st century? Again this raises new and important questions just as much as it offers a new way forward.

The emerging recognition of "deep and historic roots" is surely central to the task of addressing the educational problems of today. Our contemporary debates are based largely on historical issues that have been fought over for at least the past century but that remain contested and unresolved.

Politicians and policy-makers have often tried to draw a line under such disputes, for example over "parity of esteem" which has made such a comeback in the past 10 years, or over the tensions between grammar schools and secondary moderns. This approach has been exposed as superficial and futile through the continuing resonance of the underlying themes involved. In these circumstances the only fruitful strategy is not to ignore our past, but to engage with it.

There are important roles to be taken up here by historians of education. They have no need to apologise for their lack of influence over the past decade. Others must bear responsibility for the progressive myopia and the selective amnesia that have been manifest in recent educational reforms. But there are fresh opportunities in which the study of history can be of direct relevance if it is restored once again to the centre of public debate.

First, for teachers - to promote a stronger sense of their own identity and professionalism, to re-establish a sense of place and belonging, that is hard to capture even by the most expensive advertising campaign. This was at one time probably the most important social function of the study of the history of education which has been so wantonly destroyed.

Second, for policy-makers - to try to learn from the mistakes, the short cuts, the dead ends, the failures as well as the successes of the past 30 years of feverish innovation in the field of education, and to help ensure that we don't start re-inventing the wheel again.

And third, for the public - for a fresh assessment of the experience of education in this country over the past 200 years, of what it has meant and what it might mean in future. Purposes such as these underlay the broad project of educational reform in the 1940s, especially through the work of scholars such as RH Tawney, Fred Clarke, and Cyril Norwood. Can they do so again?

Towards such ends the study of the history of education should be restored to its former place. It is suitably contrite for its past failings, and over the past 10 years much attention has gone into redirecting its interests. Above all else, though, it is redeemed by our knowledge of what happens when it is absent. It should be put to service in helping to address the "deep and historic roots" of education itself.

Gary McCulloch is professor of edu-cation at Sheffield University and editor of the journal History of Education.

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