Skip to main content

U-turns on the true path

Patrick Scott continues his survey of key management theorists and finds that David Hargreaves's many switches in form have not affected the quality of his content. You might be forgiven for thinking that there are several David Hargreaves. There was the one who, in 1982, used his position as a reader in education at Oxford University to issue a Challenge for the Comprehensive School. Whatever happened to him?

Then there was that other David Hargreaves who became the chief inspector for the Inner London Education Authority in a blaze of publicity. Not long after that, a third David Hargreaves elbowed his way into the limelight when, as Professor of Education at Cambridge University, he launched stinging attacks on educational researchers and teacher trainers.

Finally, there was the David Hargreaves who produced Planning for School Development for the Department of Education and Science. It was difficult to work out who this one was, but he seemed to be some kind of consultant, brought in to promote management in the wake of the 1988 Act.

Given this ability to remake himself in a new form for every decade, it is no wonder that he stands accused of having done so many U-turns that he is now going round in circles. He is the teacher trainer who repudiates teacher training, the researcher who dismisses educational research, the LEA inspector who wants to get rid of LEAs, and - may Hell swallow him up - the turncoat who consorted with Thatcherism, another "one of them" who was seduced by the power and the glory into becoming "one of us".

The reality is a little different. The charge of being a shameless opportunist would stick a bit more convincingly if he had actually changed his views. The truth is that all four David Hargreaveses are, in some ways, perfectly consistent. It is not difficult to see in what he writes now many of the same concerns that inspired him in the Sixties when he was writing about deviance in the classroom.

What has happened is that in his desire to effect change - to make a real difference in real schools - he has banged on a lot of doors and (not unnaturally) gone through the ones that have opened. If, as a result, he has occasionally found some strange bedfellows, so be it. Not for him the role of the voice crying in the wilderness. That would be a self-indulgence.

His starting point and one of his abiding concerns is the experience of failure. The opening chapters of The Challenge for the Comprehensive School describe the problem and analyse its causes. The reason, he argues, why a significant number of working-class children become alienated from school is that the system exerts "a destruction of their dignity which is so massive and pervasive that few subsequently recover".

Traditional working-class communities once offered an alternative set of values sufficiently powerful to put right the damage done by the education system. Following the collapse of these communities, many pupils have little choice but to create a community of their own, a subculture which provides them with the status that they will never achieve by conforming. His analysis is most eloquent when he tries to recreate their experience.

"(I) imagine a school in which the aspects in which I was least successful (the physical-manual) replace those aspects in which I was most successful (the cognitive-intellectual). In this nightmare my secondary school's timetable is dominated by periods of compulsory woodwork and metalwork, gymnastics, football and cricket, drawing and painting, technical drawing, swimming and cross-country running . . . I enjoy most lessons very little; I am bored and make little effort in areas where I seem destined to fail. The temptation to muck about in lessons, and even to truant, is almost irresistible . . . I don't think my teachers, who seem so strong and so clever with their hands and feet, really understand me at all. Quite often they are kind, but I know they look down on me and think it's all rather hopeless in my case. I'll be glad to leave school."

In his sympathy for the pupils who fail and his refusal to blame their teachers, this passage is typical. David Hargreaves's low achievers are not stupid; they know what is happening to them. Their teachers are not bullies or cynics; their hands are tied by the system.

These are not dramatic discoveries, even though they are expressed in a limpid prose style that is in sharp contrast with most writing about education. What makes David Hargreaves different is the almost naive way in which he follows through the logic of his argument. If the problem is one of low self-esteem, then the solution is a curriculum which gives all children the experience of success. If traditional communities are in decline, then the answer is to equip people through their education with ways of building new communities and participating in society.

Many of those who shared his analysis of what was going wrong were hobbled by their politics. The problem for the Left when A Challenge for the Comprehensive School was published was that its eyes were so firmly fixed on the need for a new social order that it had come to accept the problems of the one we already had as inevitable. David Hargreaves suffered no such inhibitions. Like the right-wing think-tanks, he had an answer. His solution was to propose the abolition of examinations for 16-year-olds, and the development of a curriculum which validated achievement of all kinds. He became a champion of community studies and the expressive arts. With an attention to detail that is characteristic, A Challenge for the Comprehensive School began the process of defining what this would mean in practice. The job was completed with Improving Secondary Schools, a report he produced for the ILEA shortly before becoming chief inspector.

It is his determination to provide answers that marks David Hargreaves out as different. In everything he writes, there comes the point at which he makes a proposal, anticipates objections, and outlines in detail what needs to be done. He seems to combine the zeal of the inventor of providing that his schemes are viable with an almost puritanical belief that large gestures are hollow unless it can be shown how they will work in practice. This reaches its apogee in his work on school development planning. Towards the end of The Empowered School, a chapter on "Troubleshooting" starts: "Makers of modern technological appliances such as computers and washing machines often provide in their instruction booklets a section on what to do when the machine breaks down or seems not to work. . . For some schools, development planning can be like this."

Every setback simply spurs him on to new efforts to produce a more perfect piece of technology for improving schools. And each time he tries harder than the last time to anticipate problems and to pre-empt objections.

That's why it is hard not to respond warmly, if sceptically, to his latest publication The Mosaic of Learning, a pamphlet published by Demos, the independent think tank. Many of the familiar concerns are there. Schools should be "permeable to their community" and be "committed to a common civic education for a cohesive but pluralistic society". They should be "guided in their policies and practice by substantially better research". Other proposals are less familiar, at least coming from Hargreaves. Schools should be "smaller, differentiated and specialised, giving more choice to students, parents and teachers" and they should be "independent institutions, financed on the basis of a national formula, accountable to parents".

The most striking idea in the pamphlet is actually an analogy. Schools, he argues, are like factories. "We are glad to see the end of the traditional factor; why should we expect the school modelled on it to be welcome to children?" The solution, he says, is for schools to contract out substantial parts of their teaching functions, so that secondary pupils spend less of their time in school and use new technology to learn in different ways and in different places.

It is some of this, and his willingness to condone the transfer of teacher training from universities to schools, that has led to the accusations of bad faith. It is not difficult, however, to see why somebody who has tried and failed to find ways of effecting change should despair of ever being able to move a monolith. If, instead, he proposes a system that may be more fragmented but will at least be more responsive to new ideas, then it is possible to respect his motives even if you don't agree with him.

The problem is that he has an academic's view of the relationship between ideas and action. The world is not a rational place and one thing does not necessarily lead to another, even if each step on the route is carefully signposted. For every school that wants greater freedom to adapt and change, there is another that would use its independence to stay the way it is. Specialist schools may develop curricula that promote and reward skills other than the cognitive-intellectual, but there is no guarantee that they will serve the interests of the most disadvantaged any more effectively than comprehensives. Independence may make some schools more responsive to the communities they serve, but it will make others less so. David Hargreaves doesn't tell us whether he thinks that this is a price worth paying, or whether he had reckoned that there wouldn't be a cost.

Even if his prescription seems less than ideal, he remains one of the few capable of stating the problem in a way that makes some sense. He has an agenda about raising standards which does not rely on the rhetoric of back to basics, a vision of institutional change that is not about recreating grammars and a view of the curriculum which challenges the dreary diet of core and foundation subjects. For all of that, we should be grateful.

* Patrick Scott is senior adviser (inspection and school development) with Cleveland County Council but is writing here in a personal capacity.


* The Challenge for the Comprehensive Schoolby David Hargreaves, Routledge Kegan Paul 1982. Pounds 9.99.

* Improving Secondary Schools, report of the Committee on the Curriculum and Organisation of Secondary Schools chaired by David Hargreaves, ILEA 1984.

* Planning for School Development. by David Hargreaves for the Department of Educationand Science, 1989.Free from DFE Publications Centre, 0171 510 0150.

* The Empowered Schoolby David Hargreaves and David Hopkins. Cassell 1991. Pounds 14.99.

* The Mosaic of Learning: schools and teachers for the next century by DavidHargreaves, Demos, 1994. Pounds 5.95.

* Development Planning for School Improvement edited by David Hargreaves and David Hopkins. Cassell. Pounds 12.99.

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you