What the past tells the future

6th December 1996 at 00:00
EDUCATION FOR THE NATION By Richard Aldrich Cassell Pounds 34Pounds 15. 99

The past may be another country, but they do not do everything differently there. Among Richard Aldrich's intentions is to identify continuities as well as changes in the structures and processes of English education. A historical perspective, he argues, makes it possible to distinguish the important and long-lasting from the unimportant and transitory. But while his narratives are very far from being "Whiggish" accounts of educational progress, he chose his topics for investigation because of their prominence in contemporary debate as well as for their interesting past.

Aldrich's book is therefore a deliberately unconventional history of education, and he defines its main purpose as being to provide a basis for "restoring" informed discussion and decision-making in an area critical to the country's future, but one which has been plagued by the "confrontational culture" which he sees as having become deeply embedded in public life.

All his seven topics, which were selected partly through "consultation" with informants about what matters most, are treated in the same way. A brief review of current issues is followed by accounts of how these have been formed and contested in the past.

Conclusions are then drawn from the historical perspective. The approach is interesting, and the narratives convey a good deal of information economically and coherently. But the "lessons from the past" are sometimes difficult to follow because they are presented in highly abbreviated form.

For example, it is not difficult to show the apparent resemblance between Kenneth Baker's national curriculum and the curriculum regulations of 1904, or to quote from the past some strikingly topical exhortations to judge a school "as a living thing" and not as "a factory producing a certain modicum of examinable knowledge".

It is much more difficult, in so little space, to explore the long and continuing contest between notions of "common schooling for a common culture" and of schooling as a proper reflection of "natural" hierarchies; or the entrenched assumption that useful knowledge was what the academic elite hired and directed but did not possess; or the continuing use of "national" to refer to education provided from above for "other people's children"; or the long neglect of private education except in its most conspicuous form as a reinforcement of privilege.

All these issues are commented upon in the chapters on access, curriculum, standards and assessment, teaching quality, control, education and economic performance, and consumers. Simply listing those topics indicates how much ground is covered, always lucidly and with a consistently keen eye for the historical roots of present dilemmas.

But in the end, breadth too often defeats depth. Aldrich's historical perspective highlights the complexity of supposedly simple issues, such as the difficult - and fast-changing - relationships between economic and educational performance or the ideologically convenient simplifications about the benefits of "consumer" sovereignty.

But those issues he has chosen deliberately to complicate are (and have been) so important to "educating the nation" that his efforts to provide a better foundation for resolving them cannot be much more than invitations to explore them further.

This book was prompted by John Patten's question while he was Secretary of State for Education - "Why don't people in this country feel they own state education?". Although the query is quoted on the second page, it is then largely lost to view until the closing chapter. Answering it may have provided an even more challenging test of the historical perspective than the linked but more fragmented issues which this book seeks to clarify.

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