Review by Jonathan Simons

17 Jan 2016, 19:00

Education in Britain: 1944 to the Present

The education system needs to better prepare young people for work. Education standards are too low. There is not sufficient funding to deliver government’s objectives. These are all familiar refrains in policy today. But these examples are all taken from the first chapter of Ken Jones’ history, regarding the passing and implementation of the 1944 Education Act. Plus ça change.

The book covers in a relatively brief way the major debates and trends in British education since 1944. Importantly, as the back cover makes clear, it is designed to appeal both to the general reader and “students of educational studies, teacher education, and sociology”. It is heavily referenced, and positions itself as a work of scholarship.

I very much enjoyed the first half. But then I reached the 1988 Education Reform Act, an area I am more familiar with, and I noticed the odd bit of opinion slipping in. Jones writes how after the Act, the English system was only “nominally comprehensive”. I’ve heard this before – from those who define comprehensive as not just referring to admissions but also schools under local authority oversight. But it’s by no means a universally accepted definition that you might find in a textbook, certainly without a note recognising its contention.

I read on, more and more jarred. Jones has never met or heard about any aspect of education “radicalisation” (his words) that he doesn’t like. So he writes despairingly of how successive changes dampened the powers and willingness of teachers to take organised action. He quotes an unnamed researcher that “teachers at a London comprehensive that had formally enjoyed a reputation for union militancy and radical curricular initiatives, now (in 1995) make hardly any mention of present engagement with wider political struggle as education activists.”

Elsewhere, he laments how New Labour “failed to loosen the grip of academic traditions” on vocational education. He discusses how early academy sponsors made a “small contribution” [I note, although Jones does not, this was £2 million, hardly an everyday sum], in exchange for “control of the school”, and how businesses “shaped policy and created opportunities as never before”, including through the funding of Teach First. All of this is – to say the least – contested territory. But here it is simply presented as fact.

Elsewhere, facts come perilously close to being wrong. Writing about the increase in university fees under the Coalition, Jones quotes two student activists: “We’re from the slums of London. How do they expect us to pay £9,000?” A fair textbook would surely counterbalance this by describing how the new system did work, how it didn’t require fees up front and indeed reintroduced maintenance grants for individuals precisely like those quoted. But of this there is no sign. Similarly, Jones writes how differentials of wealth and income increased under the Coalition, contrary to figures showing that the Gini coefficient for inequality has actually fallen from 2009/10 to the latest figures [2012/13].

In the discipline of media studies, one learns about “bias by omission” and “bias by selection of sources”. The first is found when facts or countervailing arguments are simply left out of a narrative. The second occurs when the evidence cited to back up an opinion all comes from a particular viewpoint or set of sources. In the areas I am familiar with, this book it littered with both. And just as when one reads a newspaper about a familiar story and thinks “hmm, that’s not how I’d describe it”, it then calls into question all other articles in that same paper with which the reader is less familiar. And so I found myself questioning the validity of the earlier sections that I had enjoyed.

Jones is (at best) sceptical of what might be called a knowledge-rich curriculum. Yet the irony is that it is only because of independent knowledge of the events in question that one can see the flaws and omissions in his argument. Without those, a reader would be forgiven for accepting them as uncontested fact. But this book is no neutral assessment. It is, in truth, a polemic masquerading as a textbook.

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