Anarchy 94/Education in 1980: open or closed?

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Education in 1980:
open or closed?


The most pessimistic view of education in 1980 is that it will be much the same as now, only more so, and more of it; there is a danger that pessimism is automatically granted a keener realism than optimism, and therefore that the prophecy becomes self-fulfilling. This is a view to be rejected at the outset.

  The best clue to the possibilities of the next twelve years is what has happened over the last twelve. To quote Alec Clegg,[1] they have been the “most remarkable so far in the history of our education”. In terms of school building, teacher training, university expansion, there has been a fantastic acceleration. There has been the “primary revo­lution”, the new maths, a spurt in technological education from the abyss it was in in 1956. But most remarkable of all there has been an unprecedented awakening to educational possibilities: “unstreaming” is a concept to be taken seriously, rather than dismissed as the preserve of cranks; the economic potential of education is a fact to which we are all alerted; the “comprehensive” case has been carried intellectually if not administratively; the idea that higher education can take place only in Oxbridge, Redbrick or White Tile has been savagely eroded by the “binary” system.

  Precedents for all these trends were there before 1956: in a few progressive private schools; in academic journals; in a handful of LEA’s; in the polytechnics and Keele, etc. But over the last 12 years the documentation and dissemination of these concepts has established them irreversibly on the educational scene. More and more schools are adopting them or being influenced by them. And they have raised a whole new crop of expectations and problems that have to be solved.

  How can we “integrate” what remains of the privileged sector of education to make a truly “comprehensive” system? In such a system, how can we avoid “consensus education”,[2] which distrusts men like Duane and McKenzie who break with convention and experiment with their pupils? How can we gain the advantages of size, and scale, but avoid the dehumanisation and anonymity of over-organisation and administration? And—the biggest educational dilemma—how can we ensure, or approach, “equality” of opportunity and provision, without imposing utter uniformity and absence of choice?

  In one part of the school system these problems are either solved, soluble, or at any rate much more clearly perceived than throughout the rest of the system. In the primary schools, what remains of the privileged sector is already visible behind the best third of the state sector: and where parents still resort to fee-paying schools, one suspects that in most cases they would desist if the rest of the state primaries could be brought up to the standard of the top third. (Other reasons enter the picture after the age of 11.) Moreover, in the primary schools more than elsewhere, “unstreaming” is gaining ground. Secondly, experimentation is more notable in the primary field than elsewhere: the new maths is by now a by-word, but experimental schools like the ILEA’s Eveline Lowe and Vittoria primaries have successfully tried out new architectural forms at no increase in cost, timetabling has lost its rigidity, and already there have been momentous improvements in the responsiveness of the children to the discovery of learning. Thirdly, as far as size is concerned, while the norm is still around 300 pupils, greater ranges are now acceptable. Fourthly, in the concept of the Educational Priority Area (and the Community Development Area), we have a rationale for achieving greater equality of opportunity, an equality which would be enhanced by the adoption of the age-range 3 to 11 as the range appropriate for primary education. The evidence from the American project “Operation Headstart” is conclusive on this point. It is often forgotten that not only lower working class children need the stimulus and close attention to play that nursery education would provide. Harassed and “inadequate” parents also exist among the middle class.

  Why have these gains been made in the primary schools and not elsewhere? The reason is plain. With the abolition of the 11+, the pressure to sift and label children from the age of 5 or 6 was taken off the primaries. The newfound freedom to experiment without the fear that one should really be training the child to pass exams has already proved itself beyond dispute. In the primaries, we have moved closest towards what Professor Basil Bernstein, of the Institute of Education at London University, has termed the “open” school.[3] Can we not achieve something of the same revolution in the years after 11?

  Despite “going comprehensive”, the secondary schools are much the same as they were 10 or even 20 years ago, for the simple reason that the selection and sifting that used to begin at 5 is now concentrated and intensified in the years 11–15: again because the secondary system is still dominated by the function of sorting out the gifted minority who will enter the universities (which, despite expansion, have failed to keep pace with rising numbers of qualified applicants, and rising expec­tations of higher education. Last year only 59% of those with two “A” levels gained university entrance).[4]

  In his concept of the “open” school Professor Bernstein has pro­vided a realistic framework within which to formulate answers to this question. For what we have now at secondary level and beyond is still a “closed” school system. Despite all the flurry of experiment and innovation in a few schools and LEA’s, and in the primaries, the
secondary school is still a world of hierarchy, selection, labelling, academicism in depth, rote-learning, deference, the “pupil”.

  But the world outside is changing: full employment, enough affluence to buy adolescent independence, the emergence of the “teen­ager” as a contra role to that of “pupil”,[5] youth culture, the increasing tendency of the young to question the relevance of “the syllabus” to their personal and social development. Jollied along by the Schools Council, faced by more articulate children, conscious of report after orthodox teachers in secondary schools are at least aware that there is no going back to the “closed” system proper, that the impetus is towards the “open” system.

  What constitutes the “open” school? The two systems can be set out (see below) as “polar” systems, admittedly vastly over-simplified:

  “Open” (organic) “Closed” (mechanical)
(a) education in breadth education in depth
(b) self-regulation punishment
(c) unstreaming streaming
(d) social “mix” social division
(e) equal allocation of resources disproportionate allocation of resources to elites
(f) complex value system simple value system (caricature of the “Protestant” ethic — austere work, orthodox dress, etc.)
(g) “idea centred” teaching subjects
(h) team teaching, etc. forms
  A few points should be clarified: firstly, the “open” system does not involve abandoning the concepts of excellence in academic work, nor of all rules in organisation. Secondly, the “open” system does not necessarily imply late specialisation, but leaves that choice to the pupil. “Breadth” implies not an absence of specialisation, but that specialisa­tion is much more prone than hitherto to cross and transcend “sacred” subject boundaries.   The “open” school therefore stresses diversity, rather than uni­formity, a built-in potential for change rather than the illusion that one can arrive at a once-and-for-all-time perfect system. This has already occurred in some schools in the organisation of teaching groups. “The teaching group can consist of one, five, twenty, forty or even 100 pupils, and this number can vary from subject to subject. The form or class tends to be weakened as a basis for relation and organisation.” It follows from this that “space and time in the new schools, relative to the old, have (within limits) ceased to have fixed references. Social spaces can be used for a variety of purposes and filled in a number of different ways. This potential is built into the very architecture”.[6] This means much more in terms of multi-use building than getting education “on the cheap”, an assembly hall having to double up as a gymnasium because of lack of facilities. It implies a library which can make tapes, video equipment and films, newspapers, journals, etc., as
well as books, etc. It implies a lively nucleus for concourse around which a set of more specialised units revolve. But the best of the new comprehensives have already adopted these developments: any new town must base its architecture on the example of what has already been achieved in schools such as Mayfield, Crownwoods, Woodberry Down, and Southgate comprehensive in Epsom.   What does this new-found “openness” imply about size and location of schools? Two broad principles of child development underlie most educational assumptions, and must broadly be the basis for size and location. Firstly, child development implies a “fanning out” of rela­tionships from the intimacy of immediate family to—ultimately—humanity as a whole. A child’s sense of “identity” and “community” is variable and elastic, but it progresses—in building-block fashion—via family, school, peer-group, etc., to the larger community, the larger society, etc. It is crucial that education builds on the child’s capacity to cope with increasingly complex and varied relationships. Secondly, the child is increasingly—with age—capable of self-regulation and increasingly can cope with making his own choices and decisions, given that the alternatives are clearly presented to him, and that advice is readily available. This helps to clarify the meaning of choice in educa­tion. At present, choice is interpreted purely in terms of the parent’s choice to decide between schools which they conceive to be in their child’s interests. This choice is, in practice, a reality only for the rich or for those lucky enough to live in areas where schools actually differ and who possess the skills to impress their will on the LEA. But often, as Mr. Morrell has stressed, parental freedom of choice is frequently a denial of choice for the child. It can work against the child as well as for him. But increasingly, choice is being enlarged for the child in the area which most matters, i.e. within, rather than between, schools. For the child, choice inheres in the range and flexibility of options open to him within the school, both in terms of syllabus and in terms of the quality of the teaching available to him. The principle of parental choice is obviously irremovable, and desirable. In the last resort, it is the only defence against intolerable standards. But more and more the enlargement of choice must take place within the school, rather than on the basis of mobility between them. If one school in three in an area is good, and the other two mediocre, it is more demo­cratic and just to improve the latter (cf. the Plowden argument on educational priority areas) rather than “allow” movement from the latter to the former—when movement between the two groups is im­possible for the majority anyway. This is more likely to be achieved with an increase in the scale of schools. A secondary comprehensive school of 2,000 pupils can offer much greater choice of subject and timetable than a school of 500. It can offer, say, four languages instead of two; a much wider range of technical aides and equipment, etc. But it is also a much more challenging and complex environment for the child to handle. There is some evidence for thinking that the size of the school is irrelevant to “pupil satisfaction”: the crucial factor is the quality of the teaching. But, given imaginative administration (a
very large assumption, admittedly), “teacher satisfaction” can be much more readily achieved the larger the school, and the larger the potential for development of special skills and facilities, scope for promotion, etc.

  The second principle implies that the older the pupil, the greater his need for dense and complex structures, and the greater his capacity to act responsibly within them. Once this is realised, school organisation can assume forms which might otherwise appear unmanageably com­plicated. This is already clear in schools where—from Summerhill on­wards—ingenuity is exercised in ways of devolving responsibility to pupils as soon as possible (and in genuine, not merely token, ways). In Mexborough, for example, though the scale is small, a sixth form college has been established which is attached to, but partially autono­mous within, the local grammar school, and which takes in pupils from the secondary moderns who wish to stay on after 15. This, of course, is far from being comprehensive, but it significantly moves to­wards a more “open” system than exists throughout the rest of the country. “At the start … some fears were expressed that without rules and a disciplinary system there would be chaos. This has not proved to be the case. As a body, the students have shown a most commendable sense of responsibility. … It could be boasted that there has been no single act of vandalism within the college in three and a half years.”[7] The same argument applies even more strongly within the universities. And the principle could be implemented earlier than the age of 16.[8]

  The “open” school also serves more realistically as a focal point for community needs. The old-style “closed” grammar school is totally unsatisfactory for this purpose, since working class parents and adolescents tend to feel alienated from the overwhelmingly middle class ethos.[9] The “open” comprehensive would serve all sections of the community, not just one. For that reason, it could serve as the context within which school- and child-centred social services could be best organised: child welfare, vocational guidance, etc. But equally important, it must be adaptable for use in the evening as a focus for leisure and recreation: holding dances, sports, coffee bar facilities, scope for giving films and exhibitions, etc. It is therefore crucial that its “very architecture” must, as Bernstein stresses, “point up their openness compared with the old schools”. As he says, “the inside of the institution has become visible”. This does not necessarily mean acres of glass on stilts. But it implies the conveying of an ease of penetration into the schools of the outside community, with no boundaries of age, sex, or class.

  We can now consider what educational system would best suit the needs of Milton Keynes in 1980. If we look at Bernstein’s comparison between the “open” and “closed” system, their characteristics crystallise as alternative criteria and, in effect, as options, the choice of which will determine the whole educational character and social purpose of the new town. If, for example, the decision is made to give paramount importance to the attraction to Milton Keynes of upper middle and upper income groups, it may appear logical to press for a university
on the mini-Oxbridge model, with 2,000-3,000 students, etc. (once the 10-year embargo on new universities is over in 1976). From that it follows that one or two good grammar schools, or homogeneously middle class neighbourhood comprehensives which are in effect grammar schools, are adopted to service the university, and “cream” the much wider area of high IQ children. And already we are repeating the divisive and labelling character that brings in its wake the “closed” school, early streaming, the creation of a recalcitrant and under-educated minority, etc.

  If, however, the alternative of universal “comprehensive” education till 18 is adopted, this would not necessarily deter the more favoured income groups, or hold their children back, but would cater much more fully for the vast majority of lower middle class and skilled manual workers’ children. The apex of the system might ideally then be seen as a large polytechnic, or city college, with some 20,000 stu­dents,[*] some full-time, some part-time, some day, some evening, etc., some residential (and here there is scope for flexible building early in development), and a research orientation appropriate to the area, per­haps agricultural technology. This kind of “comprehensive university”[10] would feed back a completely different, and much more “open” character to the rest of the educational system as well as catering for a great deal of adult education. A junior, or sixth form college, system could combine full-time and part-time students, operating a system of day-release “in reverse” (2-3 days in school, 2-3 days in a job) for the 16-18’s. A largely unstreamed secondary comprehensive system would have emerged.

  The scope for experimentation in the size and design of the junior colleges is enormous—they could range in size from a few hundred (as at Mexborough) to 5,000—and the 16-year-old as of now is frequently already at work in factories and firms employing more than that number under conditions far more authoritarian and gruelling than any junior college would ever be! The 11-15 comprehensives would in size be much as now. But in organisation and architecture they would be freed to repeat the revolution of the primaries, since they would no longer be hamstrung by the need to select and sift for a “closed” form of higher education.

  The above pattern is presented as the most appropriate in terms of current thinking. But it must be stressed that constant re-evaluation is needed. A research and Intelligence Unit should ideally be built into the New Town plan, not just to carry out complicated experiments into the psychological aspects of a new teaching technique, but to “keep tabs” on what is happening elsewhere, and what new needs are emerg­ing among the pupils and teachers themselves. Quite apart from this,
a sociologist should be appointed to document the development of education in Milton Keynes. It is astonishing that we have no body of research on which to draw from existing new towns; and this must be remedied.   It should be clear, in conclusion, that the criteria adopted at the outset clearly determine the character of education for decades to come. The alternatives are very real and if Bernstein’s analysis is correct, by 1980 the “open” system will be as essential for our economic needs, as for more obvious social reasons. Education will be much more varied; it will play a much bigger part in the lives of people in mid-career in adult life than now; it will be the vehicle for “inter-employ­ment”, for those redundant in one skill and seeking others; and it will have to cope with rising expectations in all sections of the community, and a growing expectation of a good education for all children as of right. The “working class scholarship boy” of 1944 vintage, who regarded himself as exceptionally fortunate to be received into the educational preserves of the few, will be a part of social history. All—or the vast majority—will have become “achievement-oriented”—not always academically, but vocationally, artistically, athletically, tech­nically. If they haven’t, we shall have failed to learn from the last 12 years. “Can there be any doubt that the resistance to change that affects all our social and industrial life is due to the fact that most British adults have never been taught to think? We may have enough scientists and technologists, but we are cruelly short of technicians. We desperately need to broaden the base from which we train skilled people of all kinds. There is no major industrial country in the world where this has not been recognised. … Harold Wilson’s white-hot technological revolution is going to look pretty silly founded on a secondary education of three and a half years.”[11] Or on one of four and a half years, with no further or higher education for the majority.


*For those who think this figure unrealistic, it has been estimated that by 1986 some 28% of the age-group will have attained at least two “A” levels (Richard Layard, Financial Times, 11.3.68). And we have yet to appreciate the scope for an explosion of long-frustrated educational aspirations of those who will be in their 40’s and 50’s in the 1970’s and 1980’s—but who missed the Robbins boat.

  1. Alec Clegg: “Education: Wrong Directions?” New Society, 11.2.65.
  2. Peter Preston: “No Chance for Choice”, Guardian, 31.8.67.
  3. Basil Bernstein: “Open Schools, Open Society?” New Society, 14.9.67.
  4. Richard Layard: Financial Times, 11.3.68.
  5. Barry Sugarman and others: Introduction to Moral Education, Pelican Original, 1968.
  6. Bernstein: op. cit.
  7. Brian MacArthur: “Sixth Form Run Like a Junior University”, The Times, 11.12.67.
  8. This argument is frequently dismissed by the mere act of reference to William Golding’s novel Lord of the Flies. What the novel explored in fact was the reaction to the need for self-regulation of a group of boys previously totally dependent on imposed and external constraints.
  9. Brian Jackson and Dennis Marsden: Education and the Working Class, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1962.
  10. See Alan Little and Asher Tropp: “Blueprint for a University”, New Society, 6.6.63. And for a summary of progress under the “binary” system towards an analogous system of rather smaller and less comprehensive polytechnics, see Brian MacArthur, “Role of Polytechnics is Defined”, The Times, 2.3.68.
  11. Tyrrell Burgess: “Up the School Leaving Age”, Guardian, 3.1.68.