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Voicing Concerns
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Voicing Concerns

sociological perspectives on contemporary education reforms


1992 paperback 218 pages, £24.00, ISBN 978-1-873927-00-7

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About the book

Since the early 1980s, sociology of education has been the subject of serious criticism, much of it emanating from supporters of the New Right in education. The discipline has been depicted as subversive, irrelevant and offering no really useful knowledge. In this collection of original articles, the authors seek to address such criticisms through an examination of key reforms. The chapters thus provide a critical commentary on past work as well as identifying a series of agendas for future research and analysis. Overall the intention is to encourage debate and dialogue.


Madeleine Arnot & Len Barton. Introduction

Miriam David. Parents and the State: how has social research informed education reform?

Liz Kelly. Not in Front of the Children: responding to right-wing agendas on sexuality and education

Madeleine Arnot. Feminism, Education and the New Right

Len Barton & Mike Oliver. Special Needs: personal trouble or public issue?

Ahmed Gurnah. On the Specificity of Racism

Andrew Pollard. Teachers’ Responses to the Reshaping of Primary Education

David Halpin. Staying On and Staying In: comprehensive schooling in the 1960s

Tony Edwards, Sharon Gewirtz & Geoff Whitty. Whose Choice of Schools? Making Sense of City Technology Colleges

John Furlong. Reconstructing Professionalism: ideological struggle in initial teacher education

Geoffrey Walford. The Reform of Higher Education

Roger Dale. Recovery from a Pyrrhic Victory? Quality, Relevance and Impact in the Sociology of Education


This book has been produced during a period of major changes in education. Many but not all of these changes have been the result of Conservative Party reforms during the 1980s, culminating in the 1988 Education Reform Act and its implementation. The driving force behind these developments have been supporters of a market ideology with an emphasis on choice, competition and ‘modernisation’. Alongside these can also be found supporters of a radical form of conservatism with its commitment to sustaining the social order through family, ‘nation’ and a new morality. These influences have encouraged the establishment of new priorities, objectives and intended educational outcomes, coupled with a fundamental concern with where and how the system of provision is to be managed.

Teacher education is not unfamiliar with the demands for change emanating from various sources including government. Indeed, for over a decade it has been the subject of serious criticism. These have included critiques of the contribution of sociology of education within initial and in-service teacher education courses. The political attacks of the Black Papers in the late 1960s and early 1970s focussed not just on schools or the teaching profession. By the mid 1970s sociology of education courses were being attacked for their political bias. The Gould Report (1977) examined sociology of education courses, helped by lecturers such as Caroline Cox who were themselves engaged in teaching the discipline. They challenged the right of sociology of education to offer a critique of existing educational policies and provision arguing that such analyses were dangerous rather than inaccurate. Sociological critiques of liberalism, of the role which education played within capitalism and of the continuing reproduction of social inequality encouraged teachers and student teachers to criticise basic social values, the educational system and its premises.

The reaction of those in the discipline at the time included hearkening back to the concept of a sociological imagination and the valuable role that the social sciences could play in delving behind the taken-for-granted world of practitioners and policy makers. Sociologists could, through their research, investigate the structures and processes involved in education in such a way as to inform genuine attempts at social reform. As Dale has argued in his overview of the chapters of this volume, sociologists despite their critical stance were committed to the project of social redemption/emancipation through universal provision. They allied themselves to the pursuit of egalitarianism and excellence in education for all children. In this sense, they were not out of line with the mainstream educationalists, nor indeed the expressed goals of policy makers in the post war period.

Increasingly, however, sociological research raised more and more challenging questions about the real purposes of schooling, and the motivations and commitment of politicians to the principles of equality of opportunity for all. The range of options available to teachers and schools, and to policy makers to encourage social reform through educational reforms, became increasingly narrow. Attention had already been drawn to the political and economic assumptions behind the selection and organisation of knowledge, the principles underlying school organisation and the negative experiences of working class, black and female pupils within state education. Thus strategies for educational reform by the 1980s were becoming, according to Dale (Chapter 11), increasingly utopian rather than optimistic. Significantly Paulo Freire’s work which was taken up by sociologists in the 1970s and by feminists in the 1980s encouraged the development of utopian thought as functional to political action.

By the early 1980s criticisms of sociology of education from the Right had become increasingly outspoken and given more credibility within the new political framework. When Conservative party politicians focussed attention on raising the quality of schooling, sociology of education was represented as one of the causes of low teacher morale as well as an over-politicised teaching profession; it was blamed for setting up diversionary attempts in schools to promote racial harmony and to challenge sexism, without getting down to the real business of improving the quality of teaching and the raising of standards. Equality was counterposed with quality of schooling as two different political goals, with sociology clearly seen as obsessed with social rather than genuine educational concerns. Critics also alleged that sociology of education as an academic subject was characterised by political bias, subversion, irrelevance and weak intellectual scholarship (Dawson, 1981; Cox & Marx, 1982).

In a paper in which Dawson argues for the removal of sociology of education from all courses for student teachers, he maintains that: a time of retrenchment, when luxuries have been discarded and necessities are threatened, it is unwise to spare an unnecessary, costly and harmful ideology. Sociology of education should be cut out of courses for student teachers, not primarily as a means of reducing the Public Sector Borrowing Requirement (important though that is) but to improve the intellectual and moral environment in which would be teachers are taught (p. 60).

This type of discourse needs to be engaged with critically both for its dogmatism and the unsupported generalisations which constitute much of its substance. However, a great deal has now happened which has markedly influenced the extent and nature of the discipline.

The restructuring of in-service teacher education and its funding which was transferred away from local educational authorities towards schools has had major consequences for sociology of education courses. Funding was clearly linked to the new priorities of improved school management, leadership, curriculum planning and evaluation. Teachers were encouraged not to elect to study sociological courses as part of their professional development, defined increasingly in terms of improved classroom skills and school development.

Conservative government policies have also resulted in the closure of many initial teacher education institutions and courses; other institutions have amalgamated or set up associations. A major change has been the introduction in 1984 of the Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education (CATE). All initial courses must gain CATE approval in order for their students to receive qualified teacher status. This involves meeting particular criteria as defined by the CATE committee; for example, the time given to subject specialism, teaching practice, mathematics, science and information technology. In order to achieve these and other requirements extensive changes have needed to be made. Many traditional educational studies elements within such courses have been removed or given greatly reduced time with an added applied emphasis. Thus, many sociology of education courses have become the victims of these events. The recent announcement of the proposed changes to teacher training will no doubt be viewed as a further attack on the discipline (Clarke, 1992).

Given the somewhat hostile climate in which sociology of education is now operating, it is somewhat unusual to publish a text which explicitly addresses the discipline. Although there have been a number of sociological texts commenting on, for example, the Education Reform Act (Bash & Coulby, 1989; Flude & Hammer, 1990) these have tended to offer sociological insights into the possible implications of the legislation rather than debate the relevance of sociological research and teaching to the new climate. Such analyses have tended to assume that the discipline can find a role for itself in developing a model of policy studies which is different from the mainstream somewhat management oriented models of policy analysis (Ozga, 1987).

Our project is somewhat different. This book represents a commitment to the importance of sociology of education and to its continuance within higher education courses and research. The key role which the discipline has played in the decades after the war cannot be abandoned. For, within an educational system designed according to the principles of a market economy, sociology of education will have an increasingly important part to play in assessing its impact on particular social groups and in contributing to more effective alternative approaches within education. The battle over state education alone has yet to be fought.

We have therefore invited a range of sociologists to contribute to this collection. We gave them a difficult task. First, we asked them to consider the record of sociological research in their particular area and to consider whether and how such research could help us make sense of the current climate and educational reforms of the last decade. What had we already learnt about the processes and structures of schooling and its social relations that could contribute to our understanding of the origins, nature or impact of the Conservative Party’s restructuring of education? We asked sociologists in the 1990’s to remember the corpus of sociological research that had been halted dramatically in its development by the electoral victory of the Conservative Party in 1979.

Secondly we asked our authors to assess from a sociological perspective a selected range of contemporary educational reforms or debates about reform. The reforms they could select were not necessarily the most obvious ones, such as the Education Reform Act, but were those seen as significant within the context of each chapter theme. We encouraged authors to move away from the list of reforms identified by Conservative government as ‘radical’ and hence of greatest importance in the restructuring of education. All too often we find the agenda of sociological analyses set by politicians who have much to gain by the increased attention granted to such structural reforms as ‘opting out’, financial management, the National Curriculum, open enrolment etc.

Thirdly, we had challenged our authors to consider the future direction of sociological research in education. We asked for, and were delighted to receive, a range of different research agendas which attempt to recapture even if only in an initial sortie, some of the specifically sociological questions which have shaped the discipline in the past. We hoped through such requests to reject Conservative party rhetoric of the need to ‘break with the past’ which would have meant losing our own roots and rationales for our existence as members of a discipline. We hoped also to begin to construct a future for sociology of education within the reconstructed educational world.

For many of our authors, including ourselves, this exercise proved to be incredibly difficult. The new structures in which we work had constructed the ‘irrelevance’ of our pasts to such an extent that it was even painful to remember it. As authors we were almost too embarrassed to refer back to theories of social and cultural reproduction in a period where individual advancement and material concerns have hegemonic force. Could we really retrieve the findings of a discipline whose concepts had been jettisoned not just by its opponents but also by its members - concepts such as social class conflict, the capitalist economy, ideological and social formations, agents and agencies, state apparatuses, gender relations? For many of us, now attempting to find new relevance in the world of policy making, the language and concepts of sociology of education appeared more of a hindrance than an aid. We had all experienced in effect what Bourdieu once called ‘genesis amnesia’ - the collective loss of memory concerning the origins of our social perceptions.

It was therefore, with some difficulty that textual references to sociological theories and research were inserted into each chapter. However for some of the authors in this collection, the process represented a first step in recognising yet again the value of ‘old’ debates about, for example, the relationship of structure and agency, the relationship of public and private spheres or the debates between principles of liberal education and social reconstruction.

For others, the exercise has provided a good opportunity not just to remember but also to assess in retrospect the tradition of sociological research in education. There is no special pleading for the value of sociology per se, rather the analyses seek to identify the weakness of past and existing work. The critiques are not hostile to the tradition but they are sharp. They reveal, for example, inadequacies in the agenda set for sociology of education by the social democratic traditions of policy making in the post war period and the failure to respond adequately to the winds of change in the late 1970s and 1980s.

In the space of this introduction it is impossible to do justice to the critical analyses offered by each chapter. Instead we hope to identify some of the lessons we have learnt as editors in reading through the drafts of these chapters and reflecting on the messages which emerge from them. We were aware from the start that this reassessment of both sociology of education and contemporary educational reforms would be affected by the selection and organisation of chapters in the collection. We felt it important to keep a mixture of chapters which dealt with particular phases of education and those which tackled particular themes. In the first category therefore are chapters on primary education by Andy Pollard, secondary education by David Halpin; teacher education by John Furlong and higher education by Geoffrey Walford. In the latter category are chapters by Miriam David, Liz Kelly, Ahmed Gurnah, Tony Edwards, Sharon Gerwitz & Geoff Whitty, Len Barton & Mike Oliver, and Madeleine Arnot analysing parents and the state, sexuality, the education of black people, the pursuit of excellence, special needs and feminism respectively. This selection, although unfortunately not comprehensive, offers us the chance to explore some of the existing concerns of sociology of education and to consider new issues which were not tackled by sociological research in any great depth in the 1970’s but which now have assumed considerable significance in the 1990s.

A number of themes recur in the various articles. The significance of the change in political climate has clearly been experienced by sociologists as marking a major break in the influence of the academic discipline on policy makers and political debates surrounding educational policy. Initially that influence was direct and carried by key figures such as Halsey (1972) especially in relation to the setting up of such experiments as the Educational Priority Areas (see Chapters 1 and 6 by Miriam David and Andrew Pollard). Other debates such as those surrounding child-centred learning and primary education in the Plowden Report (1967) and the development of the comprehensive ideal by the Labour Party were also affected by sociological research particularly the ‘political arithmetic tradition’ of early research into social class and achievement and the later critical analyses of Basil Bernstein who figures in a number of chapters as a highly significant figure in establishing key sociological debates about the impact of educational structures and processes in the 1970s.

As the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (1980) in Unpopular Education has already analysed in some depth, sociological research aided the policy making processes by colluding in its agenda in the post war period. Clearly social democratic principles with their emphasis upon equality of opportunity, liberal education (rather than vocational training) and economic regeneration had shaped not just politicians’ priorities but also the terrain of critical debate. Thus sociology of education, as Halpin indicates in Chapter 7, focussed primarily upon secondary education. Certainly sociological analysis of primary education was late in arriving, urged on more by contemporary Conservative interest in restructuring its curriculum and challenging the autonomy of its teaching force than by the development of progressive ideologies and curriculum development in the 1970s. Higher education, as Walford demonstrates in Chapter 10, although attracting early attention from sociologists in the 1960s also failed to sustain the interest of researchers despite the vital role played by higher education institutions in shaping the school system and in affecting individuals’ life chances. The sociology of the school never found a partner in a sociology of universities and polytechnics.

It now seems in retrospect that the agenda of sociology of education, whilst critical, also reflected it now seems in retrospect many of the assumptions of those with whom it shared a platform in educational circles. As Roger Dale points out in Chapter 11, sociological theorising was premised upon assumptions about the effectivity of educational reform to promote social change. Despite its traditional hostility to liberalism, much critical sociological research supported the view that education was a social good and that egalitarian principles could still be discussed within the structures of a capitalist economy. What characterised the period leading up to the 1980s was a quest for more effective approaches to achieving that goal. Thus there was a shared consensus around the value of, for example, the autonomy of educators to determine the curriculum whether in primary schools (see Chapter 6 by Pollard) or in teacher education (see Chapter 9 by Furlong) or in universities (see Chapter 10 by Walford). The concept of partnership can also be found reflected in sociological research which encouraged a concept of parental responsibilities and a partnership between parents and schools - at the same time paradoxically as investigating and revealing the unequal effects on children’s chances of parental origins (discussed by Miriam David, Chapter 1).

The awareness of limits of educational reform were most clearly expressed, as Halpin demonstrates (Chapter 7) in the sociology of the curriculum and theories of cultural and social reproduction. Nevertheless that analysis, according to Dale, never fully appreciated the role of the state or indeed of much more than the ‘politics of education’. Increasingly sociological analysis by the end of the 1970’s had concentrated upon cultural rather than economic formations and had begun to focus on the particular circumstances of Conservative political reforms.

The limits of sociological research under the conditions of social democracy are explored in a range of chapters in this collection. Liz Kelly (Chapter 2) for example, takes issue with the failure of mainstream sociological research to investigate the relationship between schooling and sexual identities and to uncover the experiences of gay and lesbian students in the context of discrimination and prejudice. The range of feminist research on issues of sexuality points to need to challenge essentialist accounts which, if implicit before, have become increasingly explicit in the Conservative era.

Arnot (Chapter 3), in contrast, takes to task mainstream sociological research for its failure to recognise the considerable challenge to social democratic principles represented by feminist research. Such research had raised serious questions about the impact of comprehensivisation, co-education, child-centred learning, voluntary curriculum choice etc. The concern with economic and political relations had blinded sociologists in the past and are still blinding them in the present, she argues, to the significance of patriarchal relations within educational policy-making.

What Kelly’s chapter on sexuality and Arnot’s chapter on feminism have in common is a recognition of the moral dimensions of Conservative politics - a dimension which appears to be neglected in contemporary sociological accounts of the New Right. Such moral dimensions introduce the significance of the family within a market economy and the role which education could be asked to play in emphasising traditional domestic and heterosexual relations as the norm. Miriam David’s chapter on parents and the state complements this analyses especially when referring to the continuity of assumptions about gender and parenting, especially the role of the mother. From these feminist perspectives, the introduction of New Right thinking into educational policy making has not represented so much a radical break with past traditions, more of a deepening of an existing vein in educational policy making.

Other absences in sociology of education are identified in this collection. Len Barton & Mike Oliver (Chapter 4) take sociology to task for leaving the whole area of special education in the hands of psychology with its discourses of individualism, ‘needs’ and special provision either in separate schools or in mainstream schools. They argue that sociologists, other than the outstanding exceptions such as Sally Tomlinson, have failed to recognise the class, race and gender implications of these categorisations and has neglected a major, and politically significant, component of contemporary education reform.

However, even more critical analyses of the traditions of sociology of education are provided by Ahmed Gurnah and Roger Dale. Gurnah in Chapter 5, offers a hard hitting critique of the empiricist and formalist assumptions behind the sociology of ‘race’ and education. Taking up earlier criticisms of sociology’s failure to challenge politicians’ discourses surrounding black communities, Gurnah suggests that the weaknesses of sociological research lies in its failure to be relevant to the political struggles of black people. In this respect Gurnah echoes a theme in Roger Dale’s concluding chapter when he suggests among other things, that the current low profile of sociology of education may be a result of, on the one hand, its irrelevance to the educational concerns of teachers and students and, on the other, its failure to address the deeper conditions which sustain political ideologies.

All chapters offer some analysis of Conservative educational ideologies and policies. Some chapters, for example those by Tony Edwards, Sharon Gerwitz & Geoff Whitty, John Furlong and Geoffrey Walford focus upon particular initiatives. Each takes a particular stance when trying to account for those initiatives. Thus Edwards et al (Chapter 8) investigate in careful detail the participants, their statements and assumptions, the documentation and the implementation of the City Technology Colleges. They uncover the key figures, expose the intended outcomes and consider the practical effects. In this latter task they offer the insights of preliminary research findings on how the schemes are being implemented and the contradictions contained within the new schools, their curricula and the types of pupil they are attracting. Similarly Pollard (Chapter 6) discusses the impact of external forces on primary education. He examines the issues of teacher ideology and practice and the social outcomes of differentiation processes in schools. He reveals some of the concerns and the ways in which primary teachers have responded to, and are implementing, the National Curriculum and assessment in schools.

Other analyses of the Conservative government reforms, such as those in the sphere of higher education (Walford, Chapter 10) and teacher education (Furlong, Chapter 9) discuss the ideological significance of those policies in contrast with other political ideals. Contrasting values contained within the projects, described by liberalism, conservativism and ‘modernisation’ emerge from such accounts along with the contradictory ways in which they are put together in particular policies. Further, reading such analyses one begins to see not the success of the New Right in presenting a unified political force, but its failure to act either consistently or coherently. If nothing else the speed with which reforms were put into place within the last decade has militated against a new consensus. Instead we read in these accounts about, amongst other things, the weak response of industry to the city technology college ideal, the reshaping of educational reforms by primary teachers resisting the loss of their autonomy, the fighting back by teacher educators particularly those in control of specialist subjects, the campaigns mounted by higher educational institutions to protect their freedom and extend student access.

New arguments are also put forward about the nature of New Right thinking. The rational technocratic models of teacher education are for example illustrated in John Furlong’s analysis (Chapter 9) whilst the commitment to equality of opportunity and biological essentialism of Conservative party thinkers are discussed in Arnot’s and Kelly’s chapters.

Whilst these analyses into contemporary educational reforms have provided useful insights into the ideological reshaping of education and the conditions of its implementation, they remain, according to Dale, at the level of concept development. His critique of current attempts at policy analysis suggest that far more is needed by way of theory development especially if we are to relate to international developments rather than just to our own parochial concerns - a view with which, we are sure, the other authors in this book would agree. Clearly there is far more work to be done in deepening our understanding of the nature of educational change. These chapters have only begun to indicate the directions in which sociological researchers should go.

For those such as Halpin, the real debates have not yet been addressed. In his discussion (in Chapter 7) of the problems of ensuring that pupils ‘stay on’ and ‘stay in’ secondary education, he proposes a number of alternative models (e.g. the international baccalaureate, community education) and suggests a range of sociological projects which could further the development of these models. The key issue of educational entitlement and access also comes through all the chapters, showing very clearly that the future of the discipline is tied closely in with egalitarian principles. However, new research is proposed which would deepen and extend the commitment of the discipline to these principles. The message seems to be that we need to reassess very critically our own assumptions, for example, about the school curriculum and the qualifications provided by post-16 education, higher education and teacher education. At the same time sociologists need to learn to listen to the voices of those who have historically been excluded by the social democratic agenda - gay and lesbian students, black people, working class women, and disabled students. Sociologists are being called upon to start talking to new audiences - especially teachers and schools - and to become relevant not necessarily by abandoning their critical functions but by addressing the real concerns of those in education.

These are difficult and challenging times, and opportunities and encouragement to discuss and debate have never been more necessary. We, as editors, and the authors would not want to claim that this book represents the final answers to issues relating to sociology of education. What we hope it achieves is encouraging dialogue both between sociologists and between sociology and those in the educational sphere at all levels. We also hope that this book encourages the development of further significant work in this field.

ReferencesBash, L. & Coulby, D. (Eds) (1989) The Education Reform Act. Competition and Control. London: Cassell.

Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) (1980) Unpopular Education: Schooling and Social Democracy in England since 1944. London: Hutchinson.

Clarke, K. (1992) Speech to the North of England Conference, January.

Cox, C. & Marks, J. (1982) What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?: Teaching Sociology to Students on Medical, Nursing, Education and Science courses, in C. Cox & J. Marks (Eds) The Right to Learn: Purpose, Professionalism and Accountability in State Education. London: Centre for Policy Studies.

Dawson, G. (1981) Unfitting Teachers to Teach: Sociology in the Training of Teachers, in D. Anderson (Ed) The Pied Pipers of Education. London: Social Affairs Unit.

Flude, M. & Hammer, M. (Eds) (1990) The Education Reform Act 1988: its Origins and Implications. Lewes: Falmer Press.

Gould, J. (1977) The Attack on Higher Education: Marxist and Radical Penetration. London: Institute for the Study of Conflict.

Halsey, A.H. (Ed) (1972) Educational Priority. Volume 1: EPA Problems and Policies. London: HMSO.

Ozga, J. (1987) Studying Educational Policy through the Lives of Policy Makers: an attempt to close the macro-micro gap, in S. Walker & L. Barton (Eds) Changing Policies Changing Teachers. Milton Keynes: Open University Press.


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