Education Policy in Britain
Clyde Chitty, 2004
London: Palgrave Macmillan
231 pp., £16.50 (paperback), ISBN 1-4039-0222-4
Review by Derek Gillard
© copyright Derek Gillard 2004
History has never enjoyed a very good press. Voltaire said it was 'nothing more than a tableau of crimes and misfortunes', and more recently Henry Ford famously described it as 'more or less bunk'.
The subject has fared little better as a component of the school curriculum in recent years. While lip-service has often been paid to its importance, it has enjoyed - or perhaps endured - a rather chequered career. After the Second World War it was often variously treated as part of social studies or integrated studies. Later, as a National Curriculum subject, it suffered interference from a variety of groups with political axes to grind, and more recently it has been effectively relegated to playing a small part in citizenship education.
Perhaps it is not entirely surprising, therefore, that when it comes to educating teachers, the history of their enterprise is treated with an equal lack of interest and commitment. Yet there is clearly a desire for information about how we got where we are now, as the number of people reading Education in England: a brief history demonstrates.
So Chitty's new book, which looks at the history of education from a political perspective, is both welcome and important. In his Introduction he stresses the importance of the historical approach but warns that history must not be treated as a 'succession of chance events or as just "one thing after another"' (p.xiv). He argues that 'policy-making is always influenced by what has happened in past decades and that the historical account must always be presented within a coherent explanatory framework stressing the key themes underpinning political and social change' (p.xiv).
In Chapter 1 he puts forward arguments as to Why education matters. He notes that, though all politicians talk of the need to raise educational standards, there is less agreement about what that means in practice. He points out that the very concept of mass education is a comparatively recent phenomenon, quoting Samuel Whitbread, who told the House of Commons in 1807 that 'giving education to the labouring classes of the poor ... would ... be prejudicial to their morals and happiness ... it would teach them to despise their lot in life' (quoted p.5).
He argues that education is increasingly seen in utilitarian terms. He quotes, for example, the 1985 White Paper Better Schools, which reminded schools that preparation for working life was one of their principal functions. He laments the lack of importance attached to the social function of schooling and suggests that social reconstructionism is an appropriate ideology for the future.
We must promote a form of education which is ... open to new ideas and prepared to challenge past orthodoxies. Above all, it must surely be one of the social functions of schooling to tackle issues of equity and social justice and help create a truly inclusive society in which all forms of diversity - cultural, racial, religious and sexual - are celebrated and endorsed (p.15).Chapters 2 to 4 present a chronological history of education policy-making from 1944 to the present day.
Chapter 2 The rise and fall of the post-war consensus describes the assumptions underpinning the post-war consensus which began to break down in the 1970s 'when economic recession fundamentally altered the map of British politics and led to the questioning of many of the assumptions of the post-war era' (p.xv) In education, two assumptions in particular began to be questioned - the agreement that politicians would not get involved in the school curriculum (witness the 'national system, locally administered' of the 1944 Education Act), and the effectiveness of the 'tripartite' system of secondary schools.
Chapter 3 covers the period from Callaghan's Ruskin College speech in 1976 to John Major's call for more grammar schools in 1997. Chitty suggests that accountability and control were the twin themes which underpinned the Callaghan administration's approach to education. These themes had become increasingly dominant as employers criticised teachers for being 'overtly hostile to the capitalist ethic' (p.35), the writers of the 'Black Papers' attacked 'progressive' teaching methods and the William Tyndale affair legitimised (unfair) criticism of the Plowden Report Children and their Primary Schools. Despite all this ammunition, Margaret Thatcher's first two administrations, he argues, were 'notable for a remarkable degree of caution in the actual implementation of radical or innovative social policies' (p.47). This was all the more surprising, given the number of right-wing think tanks and study groups (the 'New Right') which were seeking to influence the Thatcher governments. The big changes in education were to come in the 1988 Education Reform Act which, Chitty suggests, 'made the decisive break with the principles which had underpinned the education service since the Butler Education Act of 1944' (p.51).
He describes the educational philosophy of John Major, Thatcher's successor as Prime Minister, as
an interesting mixture of a concern to promote Thatcherite privatising measures and a more traditional Conservative belief in the self-evident values of a meritocratic society (p.55).One of the policies which resulted from this was the promotion of selection by specialisation.
In Chapter 4 Education and New Labour, Chitty draws attention to the
obvious contradictions involved in affirming a commitment to 'social justice' and 'community' while, at the same time, pursuing competitive market policies (p.59).He points out the discrepancy between the Blair government's mantra 'standards not structures' and its first education act which was 'chiefly concerned with structures' (p.68). He notes David Blunkett's 'slip of the tongue' (p.60) announcement of a change of party policy on selection and provides a critique of the government's attack on the comprehensive school (including the problems it caused Education Secretary Estelle Morris) and its 'single-minded determination' to pursue specialisation, choice and diversity at the secondary level.
Having set out a chronological account of events from 1944 to the present in Chapters 2-4, Chitty turns his attention in Chapter 5 to some of the themes that run through the period, and in Chapters 6-9 to the role of policy-making in relation to the curriculum, thus following his own rule that 'the historical account must always be presented within a coherent explanatory framework' (p.xiv).
In Chapter 5 The changing worlds of educational policy he analyses the policy-making process itself and in particular the shift from the post-war tripartite partnership to central authority. He describes in some detail the tensions between the DES bureaucracy, Her Majesty's Inspectorate and the Downing Street Policy Unit and reports the political manoeuvrings and machinations behind the 1988 Education Reform Act. He concludes with sections on policy-making in Scotland and Wales.
Chapter 6 The evolving curriculum from 5 to 14 looks at how 'control' of the curriculum was taken away from teachers through the move from an ethos of partnership to one of accountability, and analyses the problems created by competing definitions of the school curriculum as central government took control. He documents the watering-down of the National Curriculum in the early 1990s and argues that developments since 1997 have resulted in its further diminution.
Chapter 7 The 14-19 continuum: issues and policies for education and training traces policy-making for this age range from before the raising of the school leaving age in 1972-3 to the 2003 14-19 discussion document. The debates about the status of vocational qualifications, GCSEs and A Levels are all presented and analysed. Chitty suggests that 'It seems clear that 14 is now the age at which all young people have to make all-important decisions affecting their future education and career prospects' (p.155). For the sake of a common 'entitlement' curriculum, he urges the government to 'accept the concept of breadth over time and concede the need for a modular approach to 14-19 curriculum planning' (p.155).
In Chapter 8 Chitty traces the development of policy in the areas of Pre-school provision, higher education and lifelong learning. In relation to the first, he describes the debates which have surrounded the place of play in the nursery curriculum and raises concerns about the increasing level of private provision of nursery places. The section on higher education traces policy-making from the 1963 Robbins report Higher Education to the 2003 White Paper The future of higher education, with its controversial proposal for variable university top-up fees. Differing views of a learning society are presented in the final section, which notes that 'Much of New Labour's attitude towards lifelong learning was ... based on so-called human capital theory' (p.175), and that the government's record in this area 'has not been one of undiluted success' (p.178).
Chapter 9 Issues of diversity, equality and citizenship deals with policy-making over a range of social issues. It explains the historical background to the citizenship debate and outlines the recommendations of the 1998 Crick Report Education for citizenship and the teaching of democracy in schools. It stresses the importance of combating prejudice, especially in the areas of race and sexuality, reviews the current debate about gender and educational achievement and looks at the arguments surrounding segregation or integration in relation to boys and girls, children with special educational needs, black children and faith communities. Chitty concludes
It would seem axiomatic that all primary and secondary schools have the twin functions of promoting the achievement of all their pupils and, at the same time, challenging prejudice and intolerance in all their various forms (p.195).In his final chapter, Chitty draws on international comparisons to assess the effectiveness of New Labour education policies. He looks to the future structure of secondary schooling and is sceptical that proposals for groups of schools working collaboratively - 'collegiates' - will 'remove all the more harmful and divisive effects of the Government's programme for selection and specialisation' (p.201). He suggests that, for the most part, New Labour has continued to pursue Tory education policies, and he ends with a warning of the dangers inherent in overaccountability.
I suggested earlier that Chitty's book looks at the history of education from a political perspective. It would be equally true to say that it looks at the politics of education from a historical perspective. The two perspectives need to be interwoven if sense is to be made of either. Chitty's book does exactly that interweaving.
Nothing - especially in education - is entirely value-free, and Chitty's book is no exception. He makes no secret of his support for a fully comprehensive school system or his concerns about Thatcher's promotion of the market place and Blair's dedication to 'diversity' and religious schools. At the same time, he presents the facts fairly and authoritatively.
I began by suggesting that the history of schooling gets scant attention when it comes to training tomorrow's teachers. Their education, sadly, now appears to be almost entirely utilitarian. A knowledge of the content of the National Curriculum - and some idea how to 'deliver' it - seems to be pretty well all that is required. This is simply not good enough. The education of young teachers is about much more than assimilating a list of facts to be taught or acquiring some skills in classroom management, useful though these may be. Young teachers need to take an active part in the debate about the nature and purpose of education, something they can only do if they have some understanding of its history and the politics which have shaped it.
Much of the late Brian Simon's work - including the establishment of the History of Education Society and the journal History of Education - was dedicated to illustrating the inseparability of history and practice. Clyde Chitty's Education Policy in Britain is a fitting continuation of that work. It seeks to provide information for those who want to understand how we got to where we are now, and to stimulate an informed debate about where we go from here.
This review was published in Forum 46(3) Autumn 2004 110-112.