Practical lessons in equality

2nd January 2004 at 00:00
A VISION FOR TODAY: John Eggleston's writings on education. Edited by Gillian Klein and Michael Marland. Trentham Books pound;16.99

Michael Duffy relishes the late John Eggleston's landmark pieces on equal opportunities and design technology

John Eggleston, who died in December 2001, was a major figure in British education - to many, indeed, a hero. As a teacher, he revolutionised the teaching of craft, design and technology.

As a self-taught sociologist, he showed how gender, class and race insidiously undermined apparent equality of opportunity; as professor and head of education, first at Keele University, then at Warwick, he was an inspiration and model to his students; as prolific author and then (in what might have been "retirement") as co-founder and co-director of a successful publishing concern, he helped to shape and humanise national and international debates on schools and schooling.

And here, appropriately from the imprint he founded, is a short selection from his 40 years of writing. It starts in the 1960s when he was reviewing craft and design for the old Schools Council and finishes in the year he died, with the third edition of his landmark book on design technology. But it is by no means, confined to craft, design and technology. What mattered to John Eggleston about what used to be dismissively called "the practical subjects" was that that was just what they should be: the best ways to teach children that in a technological age, making, designing and problem-solving is their future.

But they were much more than that, he believed. Because of their intrinsic satisfaction and their closeness to the real world of employment, they could be a rich source of self-worth among children who felt themselves excluded from the school's traditional "academic" values, and a conduit to the "staying on" at school or college that was essential, he maintained, if they were to close the gulfs of social and educational disadvantage.

Eggleston was constantly aware of how wide those gulfs could be, and of how easily and unconsciously schools, teachers and administrators could widen them. There is a fascinating essay here, taken from his 1967 The Social Context of the School, that discusses "the monopolisation of superior social status" by selective schools and that anticipates (shades of the 1990s) the damaging effects of examination-based league tables.

Ten years later, anticipating the local management of schools, he returns to the theme. What will happen, he asks, if schools choose to spend their resources on the students who will bring them most success?

In the event, he thought, that was precisely what happened. Even though it wrote design technology into the compulsory curriculum - a move for which he had campaigned for years - he was a trenchant critic of the 1988 Education Reform Act. Local management, parental sovereignty, opting out and league tables were bound, he said, to make the system more exclusive.

In particular, they would increase segregation, overtly or covertly, on grounds of race and class.

He had already written extensively about unconscious racism in the education system, and in 1986 he had been asked to chair, in parallel to the Swann committee's work, an inquiry by the Department of Education and Science into the educational and vocational experience of black school-leavers. Extracts from his report, recommending explicit anti-racist measures, are included here. Anti-racist measures, though, were very much out of fashion, and the DES never published it.

In personal terms, it was a turning point. Eggleston and Gillian Klein founded Trentham Books, and published it themselves - the start of a hugely successful venture. So the extracts in this commemorative volume are of much more than mere historical interest. Eggleston's concerns are as relevant today as when he penned them. He campaigned for vocational relevance, and saw the curriculum becoming instead instrumental and utilitarian. He analysed the effects of educational structures and systems on social exclusion, and saw his argument bypassed in the name of "standards".

He saw, in the potential contribution of his subject to the school's immediate community, citizenship in action - and saw citizenship become a subject too. But he never deviated from his central belief. "Positive achievement, aspiration and self-esteem should always be enhanced, never diminished, by teacher expectation and support, and never contaminated by class or race or gender." He wrote that in the year he died. It is a fitting epitaph, and a challenge too.

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