Why education policy debates need a sociological voice

Geoff Whitty

Attending a gathering of philosophers and sociologists of education this week brought home to me how much closer those two groups are now in their analyses of education compared to when I first worked as a sociologist of education in the early 1970s. That encounter also led me to recall that, at the same time, there were major battles within the sociology of education itself, between the so-called ‘old’ sociology of education of A.H. Halsey and his colleagues at Oxford and the ‘new’ sociology of education, associated with Michael F.D. Young and others at the Institute of Education in London. I discussed these disputes over the sources and significance of change in education and society in my first authored book, Sociology and School Knowledge (Methuen, 1985).

My newest book, Research and Policy in Education, published last month by UCL IOE Press, reflects my attempt to make sense of the relationship between education research and education policy in the years since I stood down from the Karl Mannheim Chair in the Sociology of Education at the Institute of Education in September 2000 to become Director. While working on the new book, I found myself increasingly drawn back to my roots as a sociologist of education. Even though such work is not necessarily undertaken first and foremost with a view to policy impact, I found sociological work really helpful in understanding why some of the policies I was discussing hadn’t had the impact that politicians claimed they would have. This applied not only to contentious initiatives sponsored by particular governments, but also to areas of policy where there was broad-based support, such as closing the social class attainment gap in schools and widening participation in higher education.

I concluded that education policy should not be considered in isolation, and I cited with approval the words of Sir Fred Clarke, one of my most eminent predecessors as Director of the Institute, who said 70 years ago that ‘educational theory and educational policy that take no account of [sociological insights] will be not only blind but positively harmful’. Greater sociological literacy on the part of policy-makers, I suggested, would enable them to be much clearer about what schools and universities can and cannot do – or at least cannot do on their own. These limitations, I suggested, were clear from recent research  that showed that, even when disadvantaged groups achieve success in the education system, we see a shifting of the goal posts and the creation of ‘class ceilings’ and ’glass floors’ that seem to protect the position of already advantaged groups. My book therefore ended with a plea for renewed emphasis on sociological understandings in research and policy in education.

So, on Tuesday evening, I was very interested to hear the sociologist John Goldthorpe – whose work on class structures and social mobility was used by the ‘old’ sociology of education in the 1970s (while my own work was seen at that time as a contribution to the ‘new’) – make some rather similar arguments in his lecture at the British Academy. In what was an important public lecture, and one that ought to be taken very seriously by policy-makers of all political hues, he argued that ‘to look to the educational system itself to provide a solution to the problem of inequality of opportunity is to impose an undue burden on it’. Rather, he suggested, a whole range of economic and social policies was also needed and he concluded that policy-makers committed to the idea of ‘greater opportunity for all’ would do better to focus their efforts on ‘reducing social inequalities of condition and on creating a rising demand in the national economy for able and highly-qualified managerial and professional personnel’.

I do not wish to suggest that disputes among sociologists are at an end – far from it! John Goldthorpe and I arrived at our conclusions using rather different theoretical and empirical lenses, and continue to differ significantly over the role of culture in social reproduction. Meanwhile, postmodernist and poststructuralist theorists continue to deconstruct the work of ‘old’ and ‘new’ sociologists of education alike. But there does now seem to be agreement among many academics in our field about the limitations of education policy as a vehicle for social transformation. This has led me to ponder whether politicians are more likely to take notice of this evidence, and act on it, now that a similar case is being argued by a broad spectrum of sociological opinion and it is less easy to point to divisions and contrary evidence. However, I have concluded that this is unlikely. As Emma Wisby and I argue in Chapter 1 of Research and Policy in Education, research evidence is often of relatively minor significance in policy formation despite the widespread adoption of the fashionable rhetoric of ‘evidence-based policy’.

This is not to say that education reforms are not worth pursuing or researching, but they will not in themselves deliver on political goals like enhanced social mobility. It is also the case that some educational goals will be difficult to achieve in the absence of broader social changes. The wider structural context that John Goldthorpe set out in his lecture is an important part of the reason why ‘magic bullet’ policies, while seductive, so often fail to fulfil their promise. Even if politicians may not be inclined to listen at the moment, sociologists have an important role in elucidating and examining the possibilities and limitations of education policy for a wider public constituency and putting evidence of ‘what doesn’t work’ – and why – into the public domain. We need to be challenging simplistic narratives, helping to change the terms of the debate, increasing informed resistance to superficial but seemingly attractive initiatives – and most of all generating demand for economic and social policies, alongside education policies, that will better serve the needs of all our children.

A.H. Halsey, the leading exponent of the ‘old’ sociology of education in the 1970s, once argued that ‘the task of the sociologist is, literally, to inform the political debate’. I hope we can revive that tradition, while ensuring that it is a public debate and not one restricted to discussions between academics and policy-makers behind closed doors.

Geoff Whitty was the Karl Mannheim Professor of the Sociology of Education at the Institute of Education, University of London, from 1992 to 2000 and Director of the Institute from 2000 until 2010.

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Posted in Education policy, Social sciences and social policy
One comment on “Why education policy debates need a sociological voice
  1. […] interesting article, “Why education policy debates need a sociological voice” on the IOE blog, warns government that education is part of the solution to social inequality, not the only […]

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