In 1983, I ended an article about education after four years of Thatcherism by quoting Raymond Williams from The Long Revolution. The old privileges and barriers had gone, he had argued in 1961. The question was now ‘whether we replace them by the free play of the market, or by a public education designed to express and create the values of an educated democracy and a common culture.’footnote1 Although I worried at the time that this might be too melodramatic, I was probably underestimating the radicalism of Mrs Thatcher’s aspirations—or, as it turns out, of Mr Major’s great simplicities. The Education Reform Act (1988), the National Curriculum, the scrapping of the Inner London Education Authority, the privatization of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate, and the other measures associated with them constituted a deliberate attempt to destroy the post-Beveridge consensus embodied in the 1944 Butler Act. The new settlement was designed to ‘modernize’ education by displacing local-authority provision in favour of a more market-like system of regulation. To balance this gestural devolution, the degree of autonomy that schools and teachers had in formulating the curriculum was significantly diminished. Instead, the content of schooling was to be prescribed ‘from above’. The National Curriculum, as first conceived, had promised exactly that: a standard language, a narrative history of national destiny, and so a normative, monocultural definition of community claiming the legitimacy of familiar values and an eternal identity.

Since 1983, these policies have left education in a mess—though how much more of a mess than before is debatable. No surprise there, if only because a systemic inertia makes education maddeningly impervious to the initiatives and wiles of any government. More interesting, in some ways, has been the extent to which Williams’s apparently selfevident alternative to ‘marketization’ has itself come to look increasingly questionable. Although Thatcherism might claim some credit for this enforced rethinking, it has just as much to do with the lessons, and the crises, of the Left, of feminism and of antiracism in the 1980s and 1990s. Can we still assume, for example, that the institution of the comprehensive school and the orthodoxies of progressive teaching will ‘express and create the values of an educated democracy and a common culture’? Does it even make sense to equate the aspiration to a radical, pluralistic democracy with the idea of a common culture— at least in so far as that implies a homogeneous culture, a culture of identity and so of exclusion? Haven’t today’s urgent debates about democracy, nationalism and the idea of community at least emphasized the need for a greater alertness to the demands and difficulties of cultural difference? To pose the question of education in those terms opens up several cans of worms. It raises issues about the formation and operation of collective identities and traditions, about the relationship of cultural differences to social inequalities, and about the outcomes of pastoral techniques of government.

Recently, several books have appeared that chart the vicissitudes of education under Thatcherism. In the present context, it seems redundant to recount the often incisive and revealing things they say about that history. Instead, in this review I want to emphasize how they formulate the question of education, and how, given the bleak experience of the past fifteen years and an unfriendly future, they attempt to imagine alternatives. In this light, the books represent a fascinating picture of changing times. The pain of adaptation is evident in the new tone of disappointment and bitterness in the latest volume from the veteran Communist historian Brian Simon. Of all the authors I shall consider, he remains the most wedded to conventional modes of thought. He still sees the struggle for educational opportunities as part of the laborious Hegelian march to democratic self-realization, and the comprehensive school as a means of unifying the People as the subject of this history.footnote2 The new Education Group at the University of Birmingham’s Department of Contemporary Cultural Studies—the English home of the creative dialogue between a Gramscian politics, a radical sociology and contemporary critical theory—not surprisingly prove themselves more open to change. In a crucial, though still hesitant, theoretical move, they have begun to talk about agency rather than resistance, and they accept the need to engage with pluralist and liberal traditions of educational thought. Although they still see their task as defining the ‘really useful knowledge’ that was the ideal in the earlier Unpopular Education, they here acknowledge, to some extent at least, that this will require not Just new institutional arrangements but a new (or revived) political vocabulary.footnote3 Perhaps the most intriguing sign of the times, however, is the way that Ken Jones, in his Right Turn, attempts to articulate a radicalized progressivism that is democratic, modern and intellectual.footnote4 These terms of reference are taken by Jones (whose intellectual and political formation was in the International Marxist Group, the Socialist Teachers’ Alliance and the National Union of Teachers) from an apparently very different type of radical, John Dewey.

When I trained as a teacher in the early 1970s, Dewey hovered in the background as a shadowy and somewhat irrelevant presence: on the side of the angels, yes, but too committed to scientific method and to liberal individualism for the radicalism of those days. Twenty years on, everybody wants to claim him. To borrow a phrase from Edward Said, his has become a travelling theory. In the United States, his ideas are invoked to bolster the eclectic populism of Henry Giroux,footnote5 or to underwrite Richard Rorty’s case for a postmodern bourgeois democracy.footnote6 Ken Jones reads Dewey in neither of these ways. Nevertheless, the different appropriations do point up a new emphasis that organizes the current debate. That is, what would constitute a specifically democratic education?

Dewey’s unfussy pragmatism opens up some possible answers; or, at least, it closes off some old orthodoxies. His rejection of any idea of a ‘fixed, ready-made, finished self’ neatly subverts the banalities of those forms of progressivism based on a non-interventionist developmentalism. The question of education is not about a Rousseauian human nature to be repressed or liberated. Similarly, Dewey sees the search for democratic social institutions as necessarily ‘experimental’. His guiding principle is therefore the creation of a democratic community, even though he acknowledges that this ideal cannot be realized: ‘Democracy in this sense is not a fact and never will be.’

The important point is that, by emphasizing the open-ended formation of subjectivity and the aspiration to community, Dewey makes it impossible to derive a system of education or a mode of teaching either from an assumed human nature or from a known form of community or identity. Once you have kicked away those taken-forgranted foundations, how then do you articulate defensible programmes of reform? Central to educational debate, then, is the question of political authority in a democracy. ‘The legitimacy of power is based on the people,’ argues Claude Lefort, ‘but the image of popular sovereignty is linked to the image of an empty place, impossible to occupy, such that those who exercize public authority can never claim to appropriate it. Democracy combines these two apparently contradictory principles: on the one hand, power emanates from the people; on the other, it is the power of nobody.’footnote7 It is the contingency, the agonism, and the evanescence of authority that make the question of democratic education so difficult. Certainly, they expose the assimilationist pantomime of the National Curriculum. But where do they leave the certainties that have conventionally authorized progressive educational alternatives?

Brian Simon’s Education and the Social Order 1940–1990 is the fourth and final volume in his monumental history of education in England and Wales. It is an impressive achievement, providing an empirically thick description of fifty years of policy debates. Those of us grubbing in adjacent fields will be raiding it for material and guidance for decades to come. It is also an immensely engaging work. As a friend once remarked, this is social history as Bildungsroman: the coming to maturity of the heroic English working class. Simon’s narrative tells how its attempts to take up its rightful social position have been thwarted not only by its enemies (in this latest volume, wicked Conservatives and Machiavellian civil servants), but also, increasingly, by false friends (pusillanimous Labour leaderships, critical sociologists and the like). The story ends—or fails to end—with a pessimistic twist. In the 1960s it looked as though our hero might eventually come into its inheritance of fully comprehensive education, only to have it snatched away once more, thus leaving the old battles to be fought yet again.