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International Socialism, Winter 1963/4


Editorial 2

Against Robbins


From International Socialism, No.15, Winter 1963/4, p.3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The Robbins Report is an essentially conservative and niggardly document. It proposes to expand higher education so that the 8 per cent of any age group who now receive it will rise to 17 per cent. The scale of the proposal is best understood by comparison with the United States, where even if we allow for those who never finish their courses the figure is still well over what Robbins aspires to. This ungenerous expansion is to take place within universities whose shape will be substantially unchanged. All the old shibboleths about not making universities too large (which ignores the existence of Wisconsin, say, or California) and about the rigid distinction between academic and professional training reappear. Questions about what ought to be taught are barely touched upon and the discussion of internal university government exhibits a complacent and quite unjustified confidence in the present undemocratic state of affairs.

This anxiety not to disturb the status quo is most obvious if we consider the reason given by Robbins for limiting expansion: that they expect the flow of sufficiently well qualified pupils from the schools to be limited. The committee writes as though on the one side the school system which provides the raw material and on the other the industrial system which provides the market for the finished products of the university represent impersonal forces beyond our control. The universities are middle-men who must adjust; the context to which they must adjust is taken or given.

The acceptance of the Robbins report marks the acceptance of a class society in which education is improved, not so that our children’s latent abilities can be developed, but so that industry can be provided, as it needs them, with more technically and administratively skilled hands. The Newsom report on Secondary Modern education is in its way more radical than Robbins. It wants the compulsory school-leaving age raised to sixteen and the content of education humanised by much greater emphasis upon the kind of social studies which will help children to understand their place in society. What is wrong with Newsom is just that it too accepts the framework of the class-divided educational community.

What ought we to want? Our first demand should be genuine equality of opportunity for children to realise their abilities. Robbins does good service in that it rejects, and provides the evidence for rejecting, the view that ability is a fixed and static quality of which there is only a limited amount about. But if we take this rejection seriously, as Robbins does not, it means that a first priority must be spending on the children who now go to Secondary Modern schools. We know that up to the age of 18 children who are of the same potential ability but from different social classes fare differently: the working class children always do worse. Why? Fewer opportunities outside school to develop verbal skills, for example. How to remedy it? More teachers and smaller classes for working-class children. Secondly, this demand can only be realised in a single educational community where the respect of all for the ability of each is the principle: no future rulers and no future ruled. This requires enormous openness towards expansion. It requires not merely a reallocation of our priorities in spending on education; it requires a vast increase in our total spending on education. And finally we should take Newsom more seriously than Newsom does. The content of education, the inculcation not of a passive acceptance of present society, but of revolt against it through the understanding of social structure and the replacement of competitiveness by community should be socialist goals. Our children should be taught to claim their rights.

These demands are for reform but they are not reformist; for they cannot be realised without breaking the bonds of the present social system. We cannot spend both on defence and on a real education for our children; we cannot have lack of equal opportunity outside the schools and equal opportunity inside them. There are choices to be made, and the next Labour government will have to make them. It can certainly make use of the superb collection of social facts contained in the appendices of Robbins; it can assent to many of the ideas of Newsom. But it will have to transcend both if it is not to provide us with a system suited admirably to the society of the new technological capitalism with itsmanagerial meritocrats, but not at all well designed for a socialist society in which education is for people.

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