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Echoes of the present – Review of ‘The Crisis of the Meritocracy: Britain’s Transition to Mass Education since the Second World War’ by Peter Mandler (OUP, 2020)

  • 22 September 2020
  • By Nick Hillman

One of the few academic books I purchased rather than borrowed, as a History undergraduate 30 years ago was Peter Mandler’s Aristocratic Government in the Age of Reform: Whigs and Liberals 1830-1852 (1990). Sadly, I don’t remember much about the contents but I do still recall vividly how I felt when I read it. I was flabbergasted that anyone could cram quite so many thoughts into so few words. It was hard, as a young reader, to keep pace with the author’s exceptional mind.

He has performed the same feat of compression in his new book, The Crisis of the Meritocracy: Britain’s Transition to Mass Education Since the Second World War (OUP, 2020). This doesn’t mean the volume of information thrown at the reader – from economists, social scientists and historians – is indigestible. Some academic books are like watery soup, where you have to work hard to track down the few morsels and others are stodgy, like my old school’s dinner of (very) thick-crust pizza and chunky chips with bread and butter on the side. This book is more like a well-prepared restaurant meal with each tasty ingredient carefully balanced by the others. If it initially appears overly weighty or daunting, don’t worry: four-tenths of the book are actually taken up by the Appendix, References and Index.

Although Mandler states at the start, ‘This book is not a history of education in modern Britain’, he is a historian and it is primarily a book about history. Sometimes, history is thought to be the story of how we came to be, with the past as the building blocks of the present. But there is little new under the sun in education policymaking and when historians put the past up front and centre, it can seem more like the present is an echo of the past rather than the other way around. That is when history gets really interesting (and why policy wonks who say history has little to teach us have it so badly wrong).

The bulge and the trend

There are chapters on education before the Second World War, on the provision of free secondary education after the war, on higher education, on subject choice and on social mobility. Some regular readers of HEPI’s blogs might, at first glance, question the relevance of the early chapters on schooling to today’s higher education policy debates but they are just as pertinent as the later chapters that are actually focussed on higher education. Take these three examples.

First, Mandler recalls that the provision of secondary education after the Second World War was determined by the ‘bulge’ (the post-war baby boom) and the ‘trend’ (the tendency for people to stay in education for longer). These are precisely the same factors that are exerting pressure on higher education institutions today. One of Mandler’s original insights is to see the growth in better secondary education as emerging from below, with the public (especially mothers) exerting pressure on policymakers. He rejects the standard alternative narrative that educational expansion came from above, with patrician politicians gradually but haphazardly opening up opportunities. The bottom-up approach echoes down the decades in debates about higher education as growing pressure for more higher education tends eventually to overwhelms even those governments which think they can limit access. It is for this reason that I would be willing to bet Gavin Williamson will fail in his apparent attempt to push higher education participation back below Tony Blair’s recently-surpassed 50% target.

A second parallel between the present and the past debates of which Mandler writes relates to technical education. The so-called tripartite model of secondary modern, technical and grammar schools, which people often assume was meant to take full effect after the Second World War (but which predates the War as a concept and is not actually in the Butler Act of 1944), failed to take full root. Mandler shows this was partly because of the lack of demand for a separate stream of institutions focusing exclusively on technical education, which were regarded as inferior. Mandler writes, ‘they seemed second-rate next to grammar schools, they offered no obvious advantages in the labour market, and allocation to them seemed just like another means test to separate the privileged from the not.’ If the bulge and the trend confound Gavin Williamson’s hopes, these enduring arguments may similarly confound the hopes of David Goodhart and his fellow travellers, who want to build a major new technical track.

A third parallel comes in the post-war debates about ‘grammar schools for all’. This concept appealed to many working-class families fed up with underfunded education in inferior buildings. But ‘grammar schools for all’ appeared nonsensical to those who believed in elites. The same debate plays out today in the space between those who think ‘higher’ education should be limited to those who have been able to secure a decent number of UCAS tariff points and those who think our selective higher education system should be replaced by a more universal one, open to all or nearly all. In one corner stand those who want to remove support for students deemed not to have the required aptitude, which was floated by the Augar panel of 2018/19 as well as the Browne panel of 2009/10, which recommended that student finance ‘is in the future determined by a minimum entry standard, based on aptitude.’ In the other corner stand academics like Tim Blackman, policymakers like Matthew Taylor and commentators like Sonia Sodha, who want to see a ‘comprehensive’ university system.

So, in many ways, the education debate has merely moved up the age range. Mandler rightly gives centrality to demography, writing that ‘Educational policy is uniquely sensitive to demography’ (though in general it still seems amazing to me how little we speak about longevity when discussing education policy).

Demand-led and bottom-up

The chapters on higher education include an excellent summary of how the Robbins report came to envisage and foretell the great expansion it did. But here the book’s idea that pressure for more formal education has tended to be demand-led and bottom-up is necessarily less original. The work of the Robbins committee’s statisticians and Lionel Robbins’s own distrust of manpower planning mean the Robbins report has long been recognised as a demand-driven document.

The sections of the book on higher education do serve as a useful reminder, however, that in the decade after Robbins, growth in higher education participation among young school leavers temporarily stalled. One Secretary of State for Education and Science, Keith Joseph, actually opposed the Robbins-style expansion and expected to be able to hold down growth. In practice, as Mandler recounts, this wasn’t entirely successful and, just after Joseph had been replaced by Ken Baker, Joseph’s own major school reform of replacing CSEs and O-Levels with GCSEs took effect, putting rocket boosters on growth.

My own cohort was the first to take GCSEs, back in 1988, and it is surely no coincidence (though I have never seen an explicit link made by any policymaker or academic) that we were also the first (modern) cohort of freshers to face student loans on entering higher education just two years later, for loans were a way to hold down the costs of expansion.

It is challenging for anyone to assess fairly accounts of reform that they have been personally involved with, so feel free to take the next few paragraphs covering Mandler’s review of the Coalition’s higher education reforms with a big pinch of salt (for I was a minor cog as the special adviser to the Minister for Universities, David Willetts, between 2010 and 2013). But while Mandler seems to me to get most of his account of higher education since 2010 right, there are elements that grate. For example, it is not true that the ‘Browne [report] recommended a much higher fee–up to £9000 p.a.’. It actually recommended the complete removal of a tuition fee cap, with a much contested escalating levy to limit the public subsidy on any fee above £6,000 (as well as to discourage universities from charging extortionate amounts).

This apparently minor error matters in part because Mandler’s primary argument is that politicians play a lesser role than most accounts of education policy attest. Yet this is one area where politicians rejected the advice proffered from outside and opted for their own alternative approach. Whether the decision was the right one or the wrong one, the current English fee system implemented in 2012/13 has – despite numerous claims that it is unpopular and unsustainable – now lasted longer than either Tony Blair’s £1,000 fee regime of 1998/99 to 2005/06 or his £3,000 fee regime of 2006/07 to 2011/12.

There is very little in the book with which I disagree with the one important exception of where Mandler claims the Coalition’s removal of student number caps was of no great importance. For example, he claims, ‘there is no evidence that these [student number] controls had much effect on access to higher education’. Yet when I started working on higher education policy over a decade ago, one of my first tasks was to calculate the huge and growing number of people then applying to higher education who were failing to get a place. Around the time of the 2010 election, the BBC were reporting the comparable calculation by one vice-chancellor of a modern university that ‘Almost a quarter of a million people applying for university this year are going to miss out on a place’ and noting that ‘The number of applicants not getting a place will have doubled in two years.’

Even allowing for considerable exaggeration in such figures, there were many young people who wanted to enter higher education but who were being blocked from doing so at the end of the first decade of the new millennium. Combined with the growth in participation since the student number cap was removed (and the endless confounding of the pessimistic official forecasts on student numbers from the Office for Budget Responsibility), it is very hard to accept Mandler’s argument that number caps did not limit access.

After all, it was not just a happy coincidence that Tony Blair’s 50% target for youthful higher education participation was (probably) hit in 2017/18 after the removal of student number caps. It would not have been hit so quickly within the previous system of big fines for universities that recruited over their tight caps.

So I am mystified as to why Mandler did not fit the removal of student number caps into his overarching narrative that post-war politicians generally responded to demand when it came to the supply of education places. It would fit like a glove if he had. Instead, when presented with a clear and recent example of politicians responding to public demand, he paints it as effectively meaningless. It feels like the only constancy is his disdain for politicians, but given the political capital spent by Tony Blair, Nick Clegg and David Cameron on higher education that seems unfair.

From mass to universal

It is perhaps churlish to point out gaps, given that this is such a comprehensive book, but I would have liked to have read more about Mandler’s views on the introduction of the National Curriculum (which gets a few namechecks but is not properly considered), about the collapse in part-time higher education that has occurred this century and about the sharp drop in language learning. If you are going to give credit to policymakers for the benefits to the STEM pipeline of encouraging triple science at GCSE, as Mandler does, then you should surely balance this by noting the catastrophic effects of their decision to end compulsory language learning at Key Stage 4. As Mandler himself notes at the start, there is also little about private schools, which have kept their tenacious grip on the education of wealthier families throughout the period in question. However, there are of course good sources on all these issues available elsewhere.

Years ago, as Mandler notes on his very first page, people generally left education at age 10, then 11, then 12, then 14 – and eventually 15, 16 and 18. In future, it is likely to be 21. HEPI has a long tradition of publishing reports predicting likely future demand for higher education (and my colleague Rachel Hewitt will be adding further to our canon on the subject soon). Such predictions have a better track record than might be supposed (unless they come from the OBR…) and the reason is neither luck nor super-human predictive powers. It is that future student numbers have one variable that trumps all others: how many people make it to the end of schooling and successfully pass some school leaving exams (whether A-Levels, Advance Highers, BTECs or something else entirely). In other words, the trend tends to be more important than any bulge.

If the progressive forces Mandler writes about continue, and assuming the regressive forces that want to see fewer people staying in education into their early 20s fail, then we will segue from a mass to a universal higher education system over coming decades.

In many respects, this is the book we have been waiting for and we should read Mandler’s conclusions not as some dusty historical reflections but as a lesson on the stresses and strains that we are likely to face on the hopefully continuing – but not inevitable – journey of educational progress. We could not have a better guide.

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