Posts Tagged ‘Robbins Committee’

The Robbins Report and the Expansion of University Education

March 16, 2016

The expansion of higher education and its extension to students from working class backgrounds was a policy that had its origins in a Conservative government. This was the Robbins Committee formed by Harold MacMillan’s government, which produced a report in 1963. This argued that higher education should be made available to everyone, who had the ability. They were assisted in this by the massive growth in secondary education, and the growing need for an educated class of technicians and workers for industry. The Labour party under Harold Wilson was also planning to found 40 new universities.

Sullivan, in his The Development of the British Welfare State, writes of this

Into this maelstrom of political activity, emerged the Robbins Report in October 1963. Its most important recommendation was that ‘courses in higher education should be available to all those who are qualified by ability and attainment to pursue them and who wish to do so.’ In effect, this was to mean two things. First, that all candidates with good enough A-level passes would be eligible (thus satisfying the ability criteria). Second, however, it meant that local authorities would be committed to funding all candidates accepted by higher education institutions. For the recommendations of the Anderson Committee that all students in higher education should be grant-aided had been implemented while the Robbins Committee was sitting.

The implications of the Robbins proposals were momentous. First, the report assumed a 50 per cent increase in the number of higher education students by 1967, turning into a 250 per cent rise by 1980. As the bulk of these were to be in universities, new universities would need to be built. As the need for technological development was recognised by the committee, the Colleges of Advanced Technology, (CATs) were to be translated into universities. (p. 148).

Among its conclusions, the Report stated ‘But we believe that it is highly misleading to suppose that one can determine an upper limit to the number of people who could benefit from higher education, given favourable circumstances.’

‘[J]ust as since the war more children have stayed on at school for a full secondary education, so in turn more of their children will come to demand higher education during the 1970s…’

‘This in itself is … no guarantee that the quality of students will be maintained if there is an increased entry. There is, however, impressive evidence that large numbers of able young people do not at present reach higher education….

‘The desire for education, leading to better performance at school, appears to be affecting the children of all classes and all abilities alike, and it is reasonable to suppose that this trend will continue…

Finally, it should be observed that fears that expansion would lead to a lowering of the average ability of students in higher education have proved unfounded. Recent increases in numbers have not been accompanied by an increase in wastage and the measured ability of students appears to be as high as ever.’

(From Margaret Jones and Rodney Lowe, From Beveridge to Blair: The First Fifty years of Britain’s Welfare State, 1948-98 (Manchester: Manchester University Press 2002) 125).

It’s to SuperMac’s credit that his government did open up university to people from the working classes. Since Margaret Thatcher’s time, the Tories have increasingly wanted to shut it off to students from poorer backgrounds. Higher education has been privatised, funding cut, and student grants abolished. Instead they’ve been replaced with loans, which have escalated to exorbitant levels beyond the ability of many students to pay as free education has been abolished. Bliar’s government took the step of introducing tuition fees nearly a decade ago now, but it was Cameron’s coalition government that raised them to £9,000 a year. And many universities have been pressing for further increases.

What this means is that graduates and former students now live with considerable debts, to the point that they may never be able to afford a mortgage. This is despite Nick Robinson, one of the Beeb’s newscasters, leaping about the TV studio trying to convince everyone that student loans were going to be free money, because you didn’t have to pay them back if you didn’t earn a certain amount. Robinson’s enthusiasm for student loans is only to be expected. He was, after all, the head of the Federation of Conservative Students at Manchester University, and another link between the Tories and the BBC. When Bliar was discussing introducing student fees in the 1990s, there was considerable concern that this would make university too expensive for poorer students. The result would, in the view of one university spokesman, be that universities became a kind of finishing school for wealthy former public school pupils.

I don’t know if that’s quite happened yet. There are still many thousands of pupils willing and eager to go to university. However, with tuition fees rising to the tens of thousands and no funding available for those from lower or middle class backgrounds, it does seem to me that the Tories are aiming at taking us back to the situation before 1963. Four decades of Thatcherism is undoing SuperMac’s work, and higher education is being increasingly selective on the basis, not of talent, but of wealth.

Which is what you’d expect from a government led by toffs.

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Free Universal Secondary Education – Another Policy Originally from Labour and the Unions

March 16, 2016

Michael Sullivan in his book The Development of the British Welfare State (London: Prentice Hall/Harvester Wheatsheaf 1996) gives due credit to the Conservative minister, Rab Butler, for establishing modern secondary education for all after the Second World War. But he also points out that before the War, this was a policy proposed mainly by Labour and the teaching unions. He writes

As early as 1920, attempts were being made at a parliamentary level to move beyond elementary education for all to secondary education for all. A Departmental Committee of the Board of Education, reporting in this year, argued that the sole relevant criteria for entry to secondary education should be ability (an argument to be echoed more than forty years later in relation to Higher Education by the Robbins Committee. This is of course a position which was not inconsistent with the Labour Party’s plans for secondary education, written for the minority Labour government by R.H. Tawney.

That document argued that secondary education should be provided free for all children between the ages of 11 and 16. It further claimed that an education system divided into superior secondary schools and inferior elementary schools was ‘educationally unsound and socially obnoxious’. (Pp. 44-5.)

The Inter-war movement for secondary education seems to have been driven by a de facto ‘triple alliance’ made up of the Labour party, the teaching unions and the wider trade union movement. Although individual actors in this alliance presented at particular conjunctures, policy plans differing in emphasis and recommendations, the common ground in their approaches I, as we will see below, clear. What we will see emerge is a process whereby the political and professional activities of these organisations, while failing to achieve a wider consensus on all of their gaols, accomplished agreement among opinion-formers and policy-makers on the key issue of secondary education.

Between the publication and acceptance of the Hadow Report and the commencement of the Second World War, each of these organisations acted in ways that put compulsory secondary education on the political agenda and kept it there. A critical moment in this process is represented by the publication of plans for education by the Labour party at the end of the 1920s.

In a major policy statement issued on May Day 1929, a month before the party’s election as a minority government, it had noted that the party ‘has always been committed to securing equal education opportunity for every child’. A key part of the process of achieving this goal was introduce ‘facilities for free secondary education at once’. (p.45)

He notes that free places for poor children were provided at grammar schools, but many working class parents were unable to take them up because of the expense of providing school uniforms, a point Ian Hislop also made several years ago in a programme he made on the history of British education.

A similar position had already been adopted by some of the teacher unions. In 1925, anticipating the emphasis on differentiation that the Hadow Report would subscribe to, the Association of Assistant Masters (AMA) had called for the establishment of secondary education for all. though the sort of school that the AMA had in mind was one with multiple biases catered for on one site, rather than the separation of secondary age pupils into different schools, it was in the forefront of educational and political thinking on this policy issue.

In the late 1920s both the National Union of Teachers (NUT) and the National Association of Labour Teachers contributed to this process of setting the policy agenda. Both of these organisations made recommendations that the provision of post-primary education should be in secondary schools for all pupils. Their preference, like that of the AMA, was for multilateral or multibias schools but the policy principle was clear. Secondary schooling should be provided as a compulsory and free part of a state education system. This principle was clear by the teacher unions in evidence they gave to government enquiries into education in the 1930s. (p.46.)

This should serve to refute at least part of the Tories’ claim that the Labour party and the unions are only interested in wrecking education. On the contrary, they wanted it free for all children, not just those of the middle and upper classes, since the 1920s. Of course, there were some radical, ‘loony-left’ teachers in the 1970s and ’80s, who should not have been let near a classroom. But in general, the vast majority of teachers join the profession not to indoctrinate their little charges with ideas about spreading the Revolution, but simply because they want to stand in front of a whiteboard and teach. And those who do it frequently talk about how immensely rewarding it is.

The Tories, however, have used it as a political football, and the teaching unions as a convenient target for the failings of their own horrendous education policies. And I can remember a time in the 1980s when a group of Tory MPs declared that schools should only teach children the very basics – reading, writing and arithmetic, before sending them out into the world. Presumably anything else was not only too expensive, but also too likely to enable children from working and lower middle class backgrounds to compete with the public school boys and girls they felt should be running the country as their right. I can even remember one very Conservative businessman on Wogan, wincing when Terry showed a clip of him as an extreme Right-wing schoolboy declaring that ‘poor people shouldn’t be educated’. Secondary schooling has shown to be too popular, necessary and successful for the Tories to get away easily with destroying it. But university education, by contrast, has been shown to be a different thing.

As for the Tory party’s attitude now towards schools, they are far less interested in giving children a good education than in packaging the education system up as another income stream for their corporate donors. Remember Nikki Morgan blustering away to breakfast TV’s Charlie Stayt and refusing to answer the question when he asked her how many academy school chains had had to be taken back into state management? She didn’t answer the question, just blabbered on about how it would be wrong to leave failing schools in state management. She also can’t answer the simple maths question of what’s six times seven.

So let’s make it clear: one of the reasons children today have a secondary school education at all is because the Labour party and the teaching unions demanded it.