State of change

18th March 2008 at 00:00

The State and Educational Change, By Brian Simon, Lawrence and Wishart 14.99. 0 85315 806 1. The State and Higher Education, By Brian Salter and Ted Tapper, Woburn Press Pounds 30, 0 7130 0190 9. 15, 0 7130 4021 1.

Stuart Maclure on the role of Government in our education system. Here are two very different books, both of which shed light on past and present developments in education in these islands. Brian Simon is the doyen of English educational historians. In a series of thoroughly researched volumes published over the past 40 years he has described - and explained - the evolution of the English education system.

A major part of the story has concerned the steady increase in state intervention in a country which prefers individualism and localism to the idea of a national system of education. Where the French - say - have seen the ideal of national education as a state-backed guarantee of universal access to a national culture, the English have distrusted the state, having inherited a system in which the main divisions were established along class lines in the 19th century. These tensions run through this collection of "essays in the history of education and pedagogy."

As a man of the Left, Simon never conceals his own political assumptions,yet preserves his detachment and objectivity as a professional historian.His analysis of the 19th century reforms used Marxist techniques and these were effective because the 19th century reformers were, themselves, so frank about their class assumptions - Simon retails the Kay Suttleworth quote: "For each class of society, there is an appropriate education". But he refuses to accept any simplistic Marxist determinism. He has plenty of historical evidence to back up what he calls his "life-long campaign supporting the notion that conscious human action can be effective and that, in the field of education especially, fatalistic theories leading to political or social quietism must be rejected".

Most of these papers have already appeared elsewhere in other forms. There is a spirited defence of the study of the history of education - now,of course, almost entirely squeezed out of the education of teachers in this country - which also illustrates Simon's own interest in the history of pedagogy, a subject to which he returns later in "Some Problems of Pedagogy, Revisited". He relates this to the arrival of the national curriculum and the institution of a single system of examining at 16 - both of which would seem to have pedagogical implications which are obstinately overlooked in current proposals for the reform of teacher training.

Integral to Brian Simon's idea of a true national system of education is the comprehensive secondary school, of which he has written much and for which he campaigned long. His own credentials go back to 1938 when he served as assistant secretary to the Education Advisory Committee set up by the Labour Party which considered - and rejected - the tripartite formulation of the Spens Report. In an interesting essay on "the politics of comprehensive education" he describes Labour's ambivalence to the comprehensive idea when in office - no money, no legislation till 1976. It has to be asked how broadly based the policy really was - Labour's education policy tended to be made by small groups of education enthusiasts. Brian Simon's mother, Shena D Simon (Lady Simon of Wythenshaw), became an ardent exponent of the comprehensive ideal from her stronghold of Manchester. But she, too, found opposition in the Northern county boroughs from local Labour leaders who were themselves proud of the grammar schools which they had attended and who welcomed the abolition of fees and the opportunity to open grammar schools to merit. There were always going to be many like them who were reluctant to kick over the ladder they themselves had ascended. It was another example of the clash between the national ideal and local individualism. Even now, the remaining grammar schools may yet survive Tony Blair.

Brian Salter and Ted Tapper have made a corner in education policy analysis, based on detailed study of the governmental and institutional policy components - in matters of higher education, the Department of Education and Science, the intermediate administrative mechanisms such as the University Grants Committee and now the Higher Education Funding Council, and the universities and polytechnics themselves.

When higher education was limited to a small university sector, government could ignore it, leaving it to the university elite which overlapped with that of government and politics. This book is about how that changed - how as costs and student numbers rose, governments came to be interested in the policy issues - meaning, inevitably, how higher education could be fitted into larger aims of economic growth and efficiency. This in turn produced a clash between traditional university values of liberal education for its own sake, and the instrumental values of governments.

By looking closely at the DES - and now DFE - the UGC and its successors,and the universities and polytechnics, Salter and Tapper bring out the competing dynamics of the politicians, the bureaucrats and the academics. Each of the players has a particular set of character traits, a particular set of interests and biases. What emerges is a continuity over time, never wholly obscured by twists and turns in the short-term. Although most of these developments have been energetically contested between the parties, there is a kind of bureaucratic logic which survives. By accident or design, there has been a transformation form a elite to a mass system from which there is no going back.

Salter and Tapper are not particularly concerned with whether this has made for better or worse university education - they are more concerned with how the change has been managed - but values have changed and continue to change. Now the mechanisms are changing too as the "managed market" takes over: policy decisions are becoming a matter of finding new ways of rigging the market. And it is not in higher education only that "power gravitates both to the centre and the periphery as the middle levels of the old educational establishment evaporate".

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