A People’s History of Education: Brian Simon, the British Communist Party, and Studies in the History of Education, 1780-1870

Gary McCulloch. History of Education. Volume 39, Issue 4. 2010.

Half a century has passed since the original publication, in March 1960, of Brian Simon’s Studies in the History of Education, 1780-1870 (SHE). The title of the book was modest and unprepossessing, its publisher was virtually unknown in the field, and its author was by no means an established authority in the history of education. Nevertheless, it has a very strong claim to be recognised as the most significant single work to have been published in twentieth‐century Britain on the history of education, as well as one of the most influential internationally in the last 50 years. It set out to counter nearly all work previously produced on the history of education in this period, and to direct the field towards a new course; essentially to rewrite the history of education itself. This paper seeks to reconstruct the aims and aspirations of this key text and its relationship to the wider social, political and ideological currents of its time, and to assess its contribution to the development of the history of education. It will identify the political and ideological context of the work, and then trace its origins and development over the preceding decade.

Simon’s work also carries broader significance, in terms of first the development of history as a discipline in the twentieth century, and second the political character of debate over education in the postwar period. It provides a further indication of the new directions being developed by historians in general in Britain in the 1950s, following the issues that have been raised by Jim Obelkevich among others. In Simon’s case, it was in the direction of a Marxist perspective that offers an insight into the role played by the politics of educational reform and the influence of the Cold War in the 1950s and early 1960s. It produced a form of ‘people’s history’, which, as Raphael Samuel has affirmed, ‘whatever its particular subject matter, is shaped in the crucible of politics, and penetrated by the influence of ideology on all sides’. According to Samuel, people’s history ‘always represents some attempt to broaden the basis of history, to enlarge its subject matter, make use of new raw materials and offer new maps of knowledge’. It is also oppositional, in the sense that it represents an alternative to current orthodoxies of scholarship in a particular field, although the terms of such opposition may vary from case to case. At the same time, it carries the risk of idealising the struggles of ‘the people’ or of a particular conception or specific group, with the further effect that, as the cultural historian Peter Burke observed, it may reduce the complexities of history to a straightforward contest between ‘heroes’ on one side and ‘villains’ on the other.

Simon’s achievement at this time raises particular issues because he was also a leading figure in the British Communist Party (CP). Richard Aldrich has noted that ‘one interpretation of Simon’s purpose in writing the book was that he was seeking to establish that in education, as in other spheres of life, the Communist party was heir to a long tradition of English radicalism’. Yet, as Samuel remarked, there were significant constraints that affected Marxist historians in particular during the Cold War: ‘Marxist historians for their part, subject to the witch‐hunt, and fighting for the right to be heard, tried to legitimize their work by removing theoretical prolegomena, softening Marxist terminology, and embodying their work in the empirical form expected of scholarly monographs’. It is now possible to investigate the relationship between Simon’s historical contribution and his position in the CP through detailed reference to archival sources. Simon’s own personal papers were deposited after his death in 2002 at the Institute of Education, University of London, while the CP’s archive is also now available for study at the Labour History Archive and Study Centre in Manchester. By exploring these sources in depth we can also seek to understand the connections between personal biography and political activity, no less than the historical role of Marxism in educational change. The present article will focus first on Simon’s political commitment and personal background, before tracing the origins of his historical approach to education, and finally examining the aims that surrounded the writing and publication of his book.

The Ideological Struggle

The bare statistics of Simon’s book are impressive in themselves. According to Simon’s own calculations, made in 1995, 35 years after the publication of SHE at which time it was still in print, the book had by then sold 7825 copies. It was originally published in hardback only, and sold over 5000 copies by 1975, when a paperback version was introduced, which helped to maintain sales over the following decade, before they began to diminish. It was initially conceived as a series of connected essays, rather than as a comprehensive study of the period, but eventually it served as the first in and foundation stone for a sequence of four volumes totalling over 1800 pages and half a million words, covering the history of education in Britain from 1780 to 1990. The second volume, The Politics of Educational Reform 1870-1920, was published in 1965, the third, Education and the Labour Movement, 1920-1940, in 1974, and the fourth and final volume, Education and the Social Order, 1940-1990, in 1991. When the third volume appeared in 1974 the bland title of the original book was replaced by the more evocative The Two Nations and the Educational Structure, 1780-1870, with ‘Studies in the history of education’ now the overarching, if still unassuming, name for the series as a whole. The four‐volume work formed a unique undertaking, sustained by Simon over a 30‐year period, the first volume published when he was 45 years old and the last at the age of 76. It remained overall the standard work on the history of education in Britain well into the next century, surviving moreover during a time of fundamental changes in education, society and politics.

Although SHE soon became the established orthodoxy, it effectively broke the mould of what had been conventional thinking. First, it questioned the conventional wisdom in the field of the history of education, which was accustomed to anodyne accounts of the gradual progress of the public education system under the enlightened supervision of administrators and teachers in the interests of all. Simon’s book punctured the prevailing optimism with an analysis of deeply ingrained educational inequalities. Second, and more profoundly, it challenged the public social consensus of the time. This was a period of growing affluence and full employment, in which the Conservative Party had just been elected into government for the third successive time in the general election of 1959 under Harold Macmillan. SHE was concerned rather to document systematic social conflict, in the form of social class struggle. Harold Silver has suggested that ‘the concept of social class is fundamental to almost all approaches to the history of education in Britain’. According to Silver, earlier historians of education presented their accounts of nineteenth‐ and twentieth‐century education in terms of social class, but Marxist historians and especially Simon introduced ‘a more systematic version of such a history, elements of which were already far more visible in the existing historical work than was true of the United States, for example, when the radical revisionists came to review their educational history in the 1960s’. Yet Simon’s work was qualitatively different from earlier work in the field such as had been produced for example by Charles Birchenough, Frank Smith and J.W. Adamson before the war, or by H.C. Barnard and others since 1945.

It was the political and ideological bases of Simon’s book that stood out against existing work. Simon developed an explicit Marxist approach to historical analysis that distinguished it from other published accounts on its theme. He was well aware of the significance of this. At the time of its publication, Simon observed privately that his book was an ‘attempt to interpret education in the nineteenth century in terms of classes, class relations, and class struggle’. It was, he added, one of the first books to have done this, and he was already confident that ‘this thesis has been (reluctantly) accepted’. Moreover, Simon proposed, this work had shifted the nature of the history of education itself from being ‘a record of a series of benevolently inclined individuals’ to ‘a descriptive analysis of the contemporary political (class) significance of educational ideas and change’. Education, he insisted, was ‘integrally connected with economic, technical, social, religious and political developments generally’. Thus, the field of education was in itself ‘an area of class struggle—wherein is reflected wider economic and political struggle of classes’. It was only in relation to this wider struggle that educational change could be fully understood. At the same time, in William Richardson’s terms, it was fundamentally a monocausal explanation of the history of education, establishing class conflict as its key focus in a way that, as Silver also observes, tended to exclude other contextual aspects of formal and informal education that seemed less relevant to this agenda. This distinctive approach, and its overriding character as a ‘people’s history’ of education, had faded somewhat by the time Simon produced his fourth volume in 1991. This was by its own admission an ‘old‐fashioned’ and ‘chronological’ treatment of educational policy changes since 1940, albeit still with a critical edge. The earlier volumes were more clearly informed by a commitment to Marxist theory and the class struggle.

This approach to the study was fully reflected in Simon’s broader political commitment. Throughout this period Simon was a leading member of the CP, and from 1958 until 1972 he was a member of its national executive committee. He was also appointed from 1957 as a member of the CP’s cultural sub‐committee, becoming its chairman in 1962. This was at a particularly difficult time in the CP’s history. The CP had been founded in 1920, shortly after the emergence of the Soviet Union as the ‘first socialist state’ and the end of the First World War. Simon had converted to Marxism and joined the CP in January 1935 while a student at Trinity College Cambridge, as did many others of his generation during the 1930s who admired Marxist ideals and were attracted to a global struggle against capitalism and the rise of fascism. He remained loyal to the CP after the Second World War in spite of the onset of a new ‘Cold War’ between the Soviet Union and the West, now led by the United States. In 1956, the twentieth Congress of the Soviet Union began a process of revealing the atrocities carried out under the previous Soviet leader, Josef Stalin, and this was followed later the same year by the Soviet invasion of Hungary after its people had rebelled against its Communist regime. Many idealistic middle‐class intellectuals of Simon’s generation left the CP disillusioned after these events, but Simon remained to take up a leading role in the party. At the time of producing SHE, then, Simon was at the height of his commitment to and influence within the CP.

Simon’s own family and social background was not in the working‐class labour movement, but liberal and upper middle class. Certainly, his background and education had been complex in their influence on his thinking. His father was Lord (Ernest) Simon, a former Liberal Member of Parliament and Manchester industrialist who had been awarded a hereditary peerage in 1947 in recognition of his public services. His wife, Joan, was from a similar background, and her grandfather, Lord Emmott, was also a Liberal MP and industrialist based in Oldham, near Manchester. Lord Simon had become reconciled to his son’s conversion to Marxism on the grounds that he remained ‘wholeheartedly keen on the same ultimate aims’ as himself and his wife, Shena, ‘even if we differ (I fear) about means to the goal’. Apart from his private misgivings regarding the philosophical differences between his own liberal beliefs and his son’s attachment to Marxism, he was also concerned that Brian’s political views would damage his progress in public life. Shena was more sympathetic to Brian’s decision, having herself been involved in the militant campaigns for women’s suffrage in her youth. As was conventional for an upper middle‐class family, Simon had been sent to independent schools—first a preparatory school and then a public school, although the latter, Gresham’s School, was well known for its liberal ideals. Yet it was also at Gresham’s that he first met James Klugmann, who later helped to convert him to Communism and who was a close ally in the CP in the 1950s.

At the time, Simon acknowledged the problems created by the events of 1956, but criticised the ‘revisionism’ that had attempted in his view to destroy the CP as an effective revolutionary organ. Looking back on his life and career in his published memoir A Life in Education, published in 1998, he provided few details about his involvement with the CP, unlike some other Marxist intellectuals including the leading historian Eric Hobsbawm. Privately, however, he recognised by the 1990s that his standpoint had been ‘wrong’:

We in the party could have explicitly condemned the Soviet action [in Hungary] and developed an independent stance. Indeed this is precisely what we did when the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia 12 years later, in 1968. But in the 1950s we were, I think, still too bound up with old loyalties (and illusions) to take so radical a step. That we should have done so I now have no doubt whatever, and I must bear part at least of the responsibility for not doing so.

Nevertheless, he insisted, ‘Je ne regrette rien, as [Edith] Piaf sang. If I had to choose again, I would have taken the same road, only perhaps with detours now and again.’ In 1935 at the University of Cambridge, he recalled, the CP had been the only ‘serious’ and ‘honest’ option available. Having joined the party, he had been ‘increasingly bound in’, with his connection ‘reinforced by very many personal ties, with the living and the dead’. The vision of socialism in the Soviet Union, he acknowledged, had been an illusion, and he and others had ‘blinded ourselves to the human horrors there’. He left the CP’s executive committee four years after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, and by the 1980s he had allowed his membership of the CP to lapse. Yet at the same time, he stood by his development in the 1950s of a distinctive programme in education that had engaged clearly with the social inequalities of the time.

Through his position on the CP’s cultural sub‐committee in particular, Simon headed the party’s ideological campaign in what was described as the ‘battle of ideas’—‘the battle of classes as it is fought out in men’s consciousness’. In its new phase re‐establishing itself after 1956, according to Simon, it was important for the CP to establish friendly relations across a wide range of potential sympathisers through the creation of a ‘new climate of opinion favourable to progressive ideas’. He argued that many intellectuals were dissatisfied with current social and political conditions and were looking for a new way forward: ‘They will not find this way automatically. We need to fight, to argue, to organise our resources if we are to develop a progressive climate of opinion in which Marxism is seriously discussed, and where intellectuals actually join [theCP’.

In order to do so, it was proposed that the cultural sub‐committee should reach out to take an intellectual lead in many different areas including science, history, music, art, aesthetics, theatre, film and television, architecture and town planning, education, psychology, sociology and literature. The media at the party’s disposal included the publishers Lawrence & Wishart, which had been established in 1936 by amalgamating two small publishing firms run by CP sympathisers, Martin Lawrence Ltd and Messrs Wishart. Journals such as Marxism Today were also based in the CP. In order to win the ‘ideological struggle’ between socialism and capitalism, Simon insisted, all such resources should be brought to bear ‘to show in practice the primacy of Marxist ideas in all fields’. In relation to education, for example, he noted that there were many ideological issues involved in the theory or philosophy of education, in which a number of ‘schools of bourgeois educational thought’ propagated their views. Moreover, he added, ‘Ideological questions are also raised in relation to the history of education and directly in relation to a number of important pedagogical issues concerned, for instance, with the content of education, teaching methods and school organization’. In this area, therefore, there was ‘no lack of ideological issues in which Marxists should be involved, as, for instance, we have been in relation to Intelligence Testing’. More generally, Simon identified a need to engage with contemporary views, trends and moods across the social sciences and elsewhere, with the aim of developing an effective Marxist critique and challenge in these fields, and ‘putting the Marxist standpoint in relation to current controversies in a polemical way’.

The CP was already well established in setting agendas in relation to history. The party’s Historians’ Group had been organised in 1946, with many leading intellectuals being attracted both to the CP and to history. Among its most prominent figures were A.L. Morton, whose People’s History of England, first published by the Left Book Club in 1938, had total sales of over 100,000 by the 1970s. Morton was regarded, according to his fellow CP historian Maurice Cornforth, as ‘a model type of Communist intellectual’. In the area of economic history, Maurice Dobb produced a further influential text with his Studies in the Development of Capitalism, published in 1946. This emphasised the nature of history as being generated by class struggle. According to Bill Schwartz, Dobb’s work showed the potential of stressing the struggle of the common people against the expanding regime of capital on Marxist principles. This made it possible for Dobb to present history in terms of a heroic revolutionary and democratic struggle on the part of the subordinate classes. The rationale for such historical work, as Schwartz suggests, was political and ideological in nature, ‘to repossess the past in order to make the future: our history was the history of the English common people’.

The CP’s historians’ group suffered a severe setback when the events of 1956 caused many of its members to leave, but it continued its activities. Simon’s wife, Joan, became secretary of the group from 1957 until 1962, on her own account its ‘secretary, treasurer, editor of Our History, production messenger, bibliography distributor and general dogsbody’. Brian Simon himself undoubtedly recognised the significance of such work for the ideological struggle as a whole. As he pointed out in 1962:

Historical studies are, of course, of particular importance in establishing the correctness and validity of the Marxist approach. This is the only strictly ‘ideological’ field in which we have a functioning group and, from the point of view of actual production, together with the impact made, this is at present one of the most effective fields of our work, the group producing a considerable number of articles in Marxism Today on historical subjects, the quarterly—Our History—as well as a number of books, some of which have made a considerable impact.

Through the recovery of the active struggles of working people in the past, it was hoped, Marxist ideals would gain greater resonance and support in the present.

These political activities came at a price. Simon’s Marxist sympathies and his rise to prominence in the CP were widely known in the 1950s, and this led to open hostility on the part of many academics and other educators who opposed his views. In the United States at this time, Communists were being vilified and blacklisted in a wide range of areas, including education. As the Cold War intensified, encouraged by anti‐Communist feeling led by Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House of Representatives Committee on Un‐American Activities, it became very difficult for Americans who were suspected of Marxism to pursue careers in schools, universities and other positions of influence in society. In Britain, tensions were expressed more subtly but were nonetheless pervasive. Joan Simon later recalled the intimidating atmosphere of the 1950s as being ‘years when, besides what went on in the open, nameless men in belted mackintoshes called on those responsible for staffing to impart warnings about individuals of leftwing views, so spreading alarm and despondency in a way calculated to quench open protest’. In these circumstances, left‐wing criticisms could be denounced for being based on the CP’s current party line and support for Soviet interests. Academic and other educational journals carried clear echoes of the wider ideological struggle with frequently anonymous reviews and commentaries of hostile intent.

Simon’s elevation to the CP’s national executive committee was therefore unlikely to escape hostile comment. Simon’s position at Leicester University came into question at this time, but the registrar of the university rejected the suggestion that he might lose his post as a result: ‘We do not care what a lecturer’s political or religious views are so long as they don’t interfere with his teaching’. This did not prevent the newspaper the Daily Sketch from pointing out, in a short item headed ‘The Hon. Brian is a Red boss’, that both Brian and Joan Simon were from aristocratic families yet were leading the CP’s political activities. Such barbs were symptomatic of a politically charged atmosphere that affected debate over the future of education in the 1950s, and increasingly came to shape arguments about its history.

An Academic Cold War

The early origins of SHE lay in Simon’s educational experiences in the 1930s, from his family and at school and university. After the war, as a teacher in Manchester, he began to develop a distinctive approach to the history of education based on these influences. He was appointed to a lectureship in education at Leicester University College in 1950, and from then on became increasingly assertive in academic and public debate, leading to extended contributions on intelligence testing and the comprehensive schools. It was also in the early 1950s that he began to develop a strong critique of established approaches to the history of education. He soon became well known, but his Marxist views and associations led to controversies that threatened to marginalise his educational contribution and confine it to the political fringe.

Simon’s family and schooling helped to imbue him with a commitment to civic engagement and an awareness of the importance of education. His father was the founder of the Association of Education for Citizenship in the 1930s, while his mother was a member of the Board of Education’s consultative committee that produced the Spens Report on secondary education in 1938. In early 1933 he had direct experience of the rise of Nazism as he was visiting Salem School in Germany when Adolf Hitler came to power and the headmaster, Kurt Hahn, was arrested. This, he later recalled, shaped a general political awareness in him and also ‘encouraged a certain independence of mind after the rather suffocating and certainly highly controlled life at Gresham’s’. His conversion to Marxism and membership of the CP from 1935 confirmed and strengthened his political views.

A further set of influences came into play after Simon left Cambridge to study for a diploma in teacher training at the Institute of Education in London from 1937 to 1938. It was during this time that he was introduced to the study of the history of education by Professor A.C.F. Beales of King’s College London. He was also immersed in broad issues concerning ‘education as a social phenomenon—its aims, procedures and organization, including psychological, historical and sociological analysis’. In an essay that he wrote in October 1937 while studying at the Institute, Simon reflected thoughtfully on the function of the school in society. He argued in this essay that ‘the school is always a function of society, it cannot differentiate itself radically from society for any long period of time, it is a part of society’. In the current period of rapid social change, he continued, the function of the schools should be to educate for adaptability and change, in order to create a society ‘in which nothing is taken for granted, in which everything is questioned, analysed and examined; a society in which new relationships are growing up, which is subject to new influences and new circumstances and a role which has never been known before’.

A particular intellectual influence on Simon’s development at this time was Fred Clarke, director of the Institute of Education from 1936 until 1945. Clarke favoured a sociological approach to the study of education, and was also especially sympathetic to the history of education as a field of study. His own most substantial contribution to the sociology and history of education was through his book Education and Social Change, published in 1940. Clarke was puzzled about the lack of scholarly attention that had been given to these issues. He confessed that he was not aware of any studies of English social structures and class distinctions that had set out to establish the social effects of these different educational routes. Over the following few years, he pursued this theme further, and singled out the importance of developing a history of English education.

After the war, Simon retained a strong interest in education as a social function in its historical development, and Clarke’s work continued to impress him. As he recalled later, he and his wife Joan were both ‘greatly influenced by Clarke’s seminal short book Education and the Social Order [sic]’, and regarded him as ‘a forerunner, in a sense, of the modern school of socio‐historians’. Yet it was Marxism that provided a crucial ingredient in understanding the relationship between schools and their social and historical contexts, as he acknowledged: ‘Marxism taught that to understand any phenomenon it must be studied in the light of its origins and development, focusing perhaps particularly on inner contradictions and their resolution’. He was appointed as a teacher in Manchester, and gained experience in different types of schools. Over this time, he became particularly concerned with the effects of intelligence testing and the potential for radical reform through the advent of comprehensive schools. The Education Act of 1944 had provided a wide‐ranging reform of the existing educational system, including the emergence of secondary education for all children up to 15 rather than only for a minority. Nevertheless, there continued to be separate secondary schools for different types of pupils—grammar, technical and modern—and Simon perceived that comprehensive schools which would cater for all pupils within the same institution would establish a much more equal system.

These issues were pursued at first through Simon’s activities in the CP. He became the secretary of the Didsbury branch of the party, and later a member of the Manchester executive committee and of the district committee covering Lancashire and Cheshire. As he recalled later, ‘Educational issues were taken seriously by the Communist Party both nationally and locally, so political involvement also furthered educational involvement of a different level than the individual school or classroom, though these fertilized each other’. One early example of his efforts that reflected his interest in the historical development of education was a CP circular for the Lancashire and Cheshire district in 1946. This claimed that Marxists were particularly well equipped to analyse and understand the true function of education in a capitalist society, as being ‘maintained and dominated by the ruling class for their own purposes’. In relation to the history of the education system, it continued:

The chief lesson that history has to show with regard to education is that the ruling class has always without exception used education (the social power inherent in the instructing set up) for its own purposes as a buttress to support and perpetuate its dominating position, and has always opposed the extension of education to other classes except to that limited extent which, at certain periods, may have been necessary for its more effective domination.

Thus, for example, working‐class schools in the nineteenth century had provided ‘education on the cheap for the masses’, and since the Elementary Education Act of 1870 ‘the bourgeois class ruling through the bourgeois state has dominated the education system both as regards the form or structure and as regards the content’. It concluded that the 1944 Act reflected the weakened position of the ruling class, but that the labour movement needed to mobilise effectively to ensure its full implementation, including the development of common schools, raising of the school leaving age, establishment of country colleges, and priority given to the improvement of school buildings and teacher training.

Simon developed these ideas further over the next few years. He insisted on the importance of promoting the comprehensive school because it challenged ‘the whole theory and practice of bourgeois education’, although he noted that they would not bring about equal educational opportunity on their own: ‘In the USA, where such schools have existed for many years, they have become the vehicles of education in the American “way of life”, and all that that implies’. Although some other CP intellectuals were attracted by the possibilities of intelligence testing, he was forthright in denouncing them, and emphasised the advances of Soviet psychology in demonstrating the educability of human beings rather than accepting divisions between them. At the same time, prominent commentators such as T.S. Eliot and Eric James were condemned for their ‘bourgeois individualism’, which concealed ‘contempt and fear of the masses’.

The wider political implications of these educational issues were highlighted following a national conference on secondary modern schools organised by the CP in October 1952. Simon was the main speaker at the morning session, and called for the abolition of grammar schools, modern schools and intelligence testing and the introduction of comprehensive schools. The Times Educational Supplement, having given a full report of the conference, criticised it in its editorial column in the same issue. It claimed that the CP’s interest in education was designed to ‘impede the country’s defence effort’, since if more was spent on education, less would be available for war. This was an intriguing line of argument for the leading educational periodical in the country to adopt, especially when McCarthyism was reaching its height at this time in the USA. It acknowledged the force of the arguments against the established system, but defended variety and selection as being more suitable than ‘the same secondary education for everyone’. It was Simon who came forward to respond to this, arguing that comprehensive schools should be supported on educational as well as on social grounds.

Meanwhile, Simon was also developing a critique of writings in the history of education. One such publication was a collection on ‘pioneers of English education’ edited by A.V. Judges, the professor of the history of education at King’s College London. This set out to identify the ‘elements of native originality’ in the historical development of the English educational system through biographical treatments of the nineteenth‐century pioneers. These emphasised the general benevolence of such pioneers in helping to alleviate the divisions of nineteenth‐century society. A review in the Educational Bulletin, anonymous but with Simon’s characteristic style and message, responded ferociously: ‘Is the history of education important? Students are given it at college and university, teachers at refresher courses. Today, more and more books are being written, courses of public lectures organised. Clearly it is considered important. But the question is: what sort of history?’ It complained that the pioneers who were being discussed were mainly the spokesmen of the capitalist class: ‘The real causes of educational developments are not revealed in these highly respectable lectures, which, with one or two exceptions, skate on the surface in a superficial manner, as if fearing to probe any deeper.’ By contrast, it insisted:

It was, in fact, the working class, in the 50‐year‐long struggle against the bourgeoisie, who won the shorter day and so made education possible. It was the working class, in the sharp and prolonged struggles for the franchise, who made mass education inevitable. And it was the working‐class leaders, men like [William] Lovett and many others, who stated unequivocally what sort of education they wanted. These were the real pioneers in English education.

Therefore, it concluded, the history of education was important, because it clarified the real issues and pointed the way forward: ‘But it must be our history, one that recognizes the part played by the working class, and which assesses the spokesmen of the bourgeoisie in the light of their real motives.’ Indeed, the contemporary struggle continued that of the working‐class pioneers: ‘In fighting for their policy, we are carrying on the 120‐year‐old struggle of the working‐class movement’.

All the same, the political sensitivities of the time imposed limits on the expression of such views. These limits were reflected in the responses to two short books produced by Simon to discuss educational issues. The first, Intelligence Testing and the Comprehensive School, provided a sustained critique of intelligence tests and proposed that comprehensive schools offered the best way forward. It argued that intelligence testing provided the sole basis for selection of pupils to different kinds of secondary school, and yet had failed to establish itself as a science because of fundamental flaws in the system. Therefore, it proposed, ‘the fruitless and sterile search for a perfect selection technique should be abandoned’, and secondary education for all be made a reality in a single system of comprehensive education. These arguments demanded serious discussion, but the author’s known Communist views and affiliations figured prominently in reviews of the book. One pointed out that the book was ‘written by a man of Communist views’, and that it stated the case against intelligence testing ‘with exaggeration, bias, and some distortion’. Moreover, it added, ‘The author does not, of course, entirely neglect his duty to kindle class warfare, but this routine is for the most part adornment, external to the argument’. Another, by John Garrett, the headmaster of Bristol Grammar School, also pointed out that Simon wrote from a ‘Communist viewpoint’, and argued that his dependence on Soviet psychology was unconvincing. One leading psychologist, P.E. Vernon, conceded that Simon’s book provided ‘an intelligent and persuasive exposition of the familiar left‐wing criticisms of intelligence tests and secondary school selection’, but added that ‘to ascribe all these ills to the wicked psychologists and his class‐conditioned concept of intelligence is ridiculous’.

An even more heated reply to Simon’s book came from A.F. Watts, a consultant to the National Foundation of Educational Research. Watts opined that Simon was ‘a hot‐gospeller for his thesis’ and was moreover ‘unable to see the world except in terms of black and white’. According to Watts, it was a pity that Simon chose ‘to bring educational discussion down to the tub‐thumping level of back‐bench party politics’. Simon replied in spirited fashion, but Watts was allowed to make a response to his letter in the same issue. He defended his review as a faithful account of Simon’s point of view, ‘which was that of an over‐ardent political propagandist in the educational field’. Watts went on to spell out his underlying objections to Simon’s work in the following terms:

What I found offensive in the book was the suggestion that responsible administrators, aided by incompetent if not dishonest psychologists, were engaged in a plot to rob the working‐class child of his rightful heritage. This is really too silly to merit rational discussion, except perhaps in the pages of a journal devoted to psychotherapy. That Mr Simon should expect me to regard intelligence tests as infallible is equally absurd: we are not all party men.

Hence, Simon’s association with the CP was used to undermine his views on education, and exposed him to public derision and abuse.

Simon’s second book at this time, entitled The Common Secondary School, led to similar comments. This book identified a ‘crisis’ in secondary education that it argued could only be met through a radical programme of reconstruction based on the provision of comprehensive schools. It developed a historical approach to explain the causes of the crisis, criticised the practice of selection, and then discussed the means by which a common education might be achieved for all pupils. This, he argued, would also involve a substantial building programme, the recruitment of more teachers, and the absorption and regulation of schools that remained outside the system. This work was greeted by an anonymous but substantial review on the day of its publication, during the general election campaign of May 1955, which was in fact by Professor Judges of King’s College London. Judges summed the book up as ‘vigorous and well‐informed (though not always accurate)’. He suggested nonetheless that Simon’s arguments might be more impressive if he ‘were not so consistently and so obviously overplaying his hand’. He conceded that the general analysis of government policy was ‘cruelly shrewd and clever’, but the author dismissed difficulties facing his own ideas ‘in a very airy fashion … as presenting no daunting problems for the convinced and determined planner’. This was a review that itself attracted criticism from Simon’s admirers. His father, Ernest, congratulated him on it, adding that he had ‘rarely read a review which mingles praise and abuse in such an interesting and rather novel way’. His mother, Shena, thought that Judges had tried to ‘smell out Communism’ in the book in a way that only McCarthy might be able to explain.

Simon had come to national prominence, but his ideas tended to polarise opinion and attracted disapproval much more than approbation. The academic Cold War was at the heart of the debate over education. One CP member, a woman teacher of 20 years’ experience, could applaud The Common Secondary School as ‘a book of which every Communist Party member must be especially proud’. At the same time, Frank Whitehead in the Journal of Education deplored the threat that it represented to ‘quality of educational discussion’. The danger was that those who might be persuaded to support his educational proposals might be alienated by his Marxist views and CP connections. Yet these beliefs, and his position in the party, were integral to his contribution to education.

Making History

Between 1955 and 1960, Simon concentrated his literary efforts on consolidating his scattered historical ideas into a single work, and this culminated in the publication of SHE. The challenge was to maintain a distinctive Marxist analysis that would support his political ideals, while appealing at the same time to a broad audience in a climate that was increasingly hostile to both the CP and the Soviet Union.

Simon’s early plans for his book envisaged a set of connected essays that would explain the nineteenth‐century background to contemporary educational issues. He began by discussing his preliminary ideas with James Klugmann, who generally approved the plan. The fundamental idea was to demonstrate the diverging interests of the middle class and the working class in the area of education, and the emergence of a struggle between them. A middle‐class educational philosophy developed in the early decades of the nineteenth century, and it enlisted working‐class support, but from the 1830s onwards the working‐class movement established an independent approach. In the 1850s and 1860s, a moment of change occurred, as ‘The middle class, finally achieving state power (1846 Corn Laws) and higher forms of organization and concentration of capital, concentrates on remodeling and developing education to suit its needs. Uses state apparatus for this purpose, and sets out deliberately to construct an educational system to buttress its power.’ The Elementary Education Act of 1870 thus consolidated ‘the firming up of a class system of education’. He also intended to include an epilogue to demonstrate the continuing significance of these social class differences. The ‘key’, as he saw it, was that ‘there are those who labour, and those who rule’, and that education would come into its own with the ending of these differences.

A more detailed synopsis served to clarify the working out of the argument. The first essay would examine the rise in the social prestige and political influence of the industrial middle class at the start of the nineteenth century, leading to the growth of the new industrial cities, and its ideological expression ultimately in utilitarianism. These new ideas came into open opposition to the aristocracy and underpinned a struggle for social, political, religious and educational reform. In the area of education, the bourgeoisie attacked the institutions that supported the old aristocratic order, in particular the universities of Oxford and Cambridge and the public and grammar schools, and also sought to establish their own educational institutions under their own control and serving their needs. This culminated with the founding in 1828 of University College London, ‘the highest expression in practice of bourgeois educational theory, achieved only in the process of struggle, and breaking the monopoly of University education, i.e. the harbinger of the future’.

In the second essay, Simon set out to examine the form of education that was provided for the working class. First, he noted the wholesale alienation of craftsmen and husbandmen and their transformation into a propertyless proletariat splitting society into ‘exploiters and exploited’. Educational policy reflected these social conflicts. The middle class found working‐class allies in its struggle with the aristocracy, but after the passage of the Parliamentary Reform Act in 1832 tensions between the middle and working classes became increasingly acute. Utilitarian educational theory in this context struggled to achieve a ‘capitalist society comprising exploiter and exploited’, and argued in favour of a limited education and religious indoctrination as ‘the alternative to the prison house’ to counter working‐class morality and political objectives. These independent educational aims of the working class were to be emphasised in the third essay. The Chartist movement gave the working class its fullest expression as an independent political force, including the right to a full education: ‘The more class conscious sections, therefore, consciously rejected the ideology (i.e. political economy) and the educational ideas of the bourgeoisie, and evolved their own educational theory and practice in opposition to those of the bourgeoisie’. The fourth essay, on the period 1850-1870, was to survey the compromise between the bourgeoisie and the landed interest, based in increased economic prosperity, leading to the Victorian upper middle class emerging as the ruling class. The bourgeoisie took advantage of its new political influence to use the state apparatus to reinforce its power. A series of Commissions in the 1850s and 1860s on a wide range of educational institutions provided the foundations for ‘a clearly stratified class system of education’.

At this stage, Simon was hopeful that he would also be able to include the period after 1870 and into the early twentieth century in this volume. He envisaged a fifth essay that would explore the relationship between education and imperialism. In the 1890s, he suggested, class interests were again sharpened as the British Empire spread while socialism revived, so the State intervened again for the Education Act of 1902 ‘to complete a reorganization of education in lines with the new needs of the bourgeoisie’. The independent public schools were untouched, but elementary education was restricted to a limited education for the working class, a sharp division was created between elementary and secondary education, and technical education was neglected. The 1902 Act thereby laid the basis for the scope and character of education in the twentieth century. Finally, Simon sought to include a sixth essay on education and labour. This would examine the working‐class struggle to shorten the hours of labour and to raise the school leaving age. It would also show how bourgeois ideology stemming from the eighteenth‐century economist Adam Smith inculcated bourgeois ideas and morality, while the ideals of such figures as Godwin, Paine, Shelley, Wollstonecraft, Owen, Lovett, Marx, Engels, Ruskin and Morris pointed in the direction of education as a means of full human development in a classless society.

In practice, Simon was unable to find space to include these later developments, and his book culminated in the Elementary Education Act of 1870. However, the general scheme remained intact. The first three chapters explored the development of middle‐class educational ideas and the provision of education for the working class. Chapters 4 and 5 considered the working‐class movement and education. The final two chapters examined the role of the State in education with the establishing of an educational system and elementary schooling for the working class. However, he did not feel ready to share his work with others until 1958. His mother, Shena, was encouraging, although she found the arrangement in his manuscript confusing as she came across the same people in different sections at different periods of time. She also took issue with the lack of emphasis given in the manuscript to the role of denominational bodies in teaching working‐class children: ‘I am quite sure that the ordinary historians of education give far too much space to the Voluntary Societies, but do you go to the other extreme?’ Joan Simon also commented on a draft in the summer of 1958, and by the end of the year he had completed the work.

It was significant at this stage that Simon looked for advice on his final draft mainly from leading members of the CP. Apart from his wife, these were Maurice Cornforth, James Klugmann and A.L. Morton. He explained to Cornforth, who received it on behalf of Lawrence & Wishart, that the book had developed from three essays ‘which got longer and longer and divided into sub‐sections’. He remained uncertain about the final presentation, and in particular was anxious that ‘at various points the main lessons—conclusions etc., need bringing out more clearly’. At this point he was still considering the addition of an epilogue to cover the period from 1870 up to the present, and so to bring it up to date. However, he had already provided an introductory ‘note to the reader’, which was intended to explain the longer term significance of his work. He was conscious that he had ‘had to dash it off rather rapidly without time for thought’, but this gave a frank appraisal of the education system in the twentieth century. He was emphatic that this remained a class‐based system despite the changes of the past century:

In all its essentials the present system is precisely that laid down so carefully 80 to 100 years ago in order to buttress the rule of the property owners. The reformation and reorganization of the public schools, their establishment, once reorganized, outside any form of Parliamentary control—these steps, carried through at that period, have ensured the maintenance of what is a unique system of schools serving the needs of the ruling class—few today attempt to deny that they serve this function today as they did then.

Moreover, he added, contemporary struggles over independent schools, comprehensive schools and the abolition of selection comprised ‘the contemporary expressions of this continuing struggle’. This was, in his view, less complex in character than it had been in the nineteenth century, for now it involved only two opposing social classes whereas in the nineteenth century there had been three. The working class had continued to make considerable gains, he acknowledged, yet, he insisted, ‘so long as the society is divided into property owners on the one hand and a propertyless working class on the other, the final fruits of this policy—in the form of the fullest equality of opportunity—cannot be enjoyed’. This would require changes outside the schools: ‘As the following pages show, it was not until the industrial middle class finally achieved full political and economic power that they were able to carry out their aims in full measure’. The contemporary lesson seemed clear enough.

The advice provided by Cornforth and Klugmann was designed to help the work achieve a broad readership by avoiding Marxist rhetoric as far as possible, while at the same time ensuring that the argument followed a Marxist logic. Cornforth confirmed that the book would be published, and proposed that it needed very little further work. He enthused that: ‘The theme develops in a natural and logical way, and it is easy to read and absolutely attention‐compelling all the way through.’ Although he did not know the existing literature in the area, he felt able to affirm that ‘this is a book of great importance which will make its way and have an influence, delighting persons of good will and seriously embarrassing others’. His advice was principally to reduce and tone down the material that Simon wished to use to emphasise contemporary implications. An epilogue was not necessary, he proposed. Since it would have to be brief and deal with ‘the most frightfully “controversial” questions’, it was best to avoid it altogether. An introduction was appropriate, he allowed, but part of the present version ‘should be rewritten in a more careful and persuasive way, so as not to antagonize a lot of readers right at the start’. On the other hand, he was keen to encourage Simon to depict working‐class organisation as independent and active throughout the book, rather than as ‘a purely passive mass, that the rulers do as they like with’. Simon agreed with this approach and was relieved at Cornforth’s encouraging words: ‘I must say I got a bit depressed about the book at one time, but you have cheered me up’.

For his part, Klugmann was also impressed, although he had a number of detailed points for Simon to consider. His principal concern appeared to be that Simon defined the working‐class movement too broadly. For example, the book included Robert Owen’s movement within the working class, whereas Klugmann argued that this was ‘not really working class but “for the working class” and is a form of Utopian socialism’. Klugmann was anxious that there should be a clear distinction drawn between the struggle to give education to the working class and the fight of the working class to get education for itself. If this distinction was not fully developed, Klugmann warned, ‘part of the spirit of the book gets slurred over’. Meanwhile Morton, the doyen of Marxist historians, also raised a doctrinal issue to help to clarify Simon’s argument. He was overall highly supportive of the work, noting that: ‘I really have nothing but admiration for your book. It is most illuminating to have the history of education dealt with in this systematic political way, and there is practically nothing that I would want changed.’ His main suggestion was to be more specific about the use of the term ‘middle class’:

I do think that sometimes you use middle class not in a Marxist way, in relation to the productive forces, but in the popular way of their relation to the state apparatus and the way they tended to think about themselves and whether they had the airs and graces. Ought we not to keep the term middle class, at any rate after the early nineteenth century, for the sections that did not live mainly on rent and profit?

The title of the book was still unresolved, and when he submitted the final manuscript Simon proposed ‘Education, Class and Politics, 1760-1870’. However, this was not approved, perhaps because it might have appeared too narrow, and the bland Studies in the History of Education, 1780-1870 was adopted instead. Gone also was the ‘Note to the reader’ that Simon had originally contemplated, to be replaced by a short Introduction addressed to the ‘ordinary reader’ but emphasising in more modest terms its intention to direct attention to ‘neglected aspects of educational history’.

The careful reining in of Simon’s usual flourishes paid dividends in terms of helping to achieve a broad audience that was receptive to the book. Reviews of the work were generally appreciative, if cautious. One such was by H.C. Barnard, the author of A History of English Education from 1760, very much a book in the old style. Writing in the British Journal of Educational Studies, Barnard recognised that Simon had produced ‘a solid and scholarly contribution’, even if he was unhappy that it lacked a bibliography. Despite its title, he acknowledged, it was not just ‘a series of detached essays’, but presented ‘a well‐organised and continuous account’. He agreed too that the challenge of the working‐class movement and its educational repercussions was a significant theme that had required ‘enunciating’, even though he maintained that it was ‘only one aspect’, and that ‘the emphasis tends to be on one side’. Barnard suggested overall that ‘to gain a clear picture of the educational history of the period one would need to supplement (and perhaps modify) Mr Simon’s account from other sources’. It would clearly take time to win over many historians of education, but they were at least allowing Simon a respectful hearing.

It is noteworthy that Simon continued to rely on his CP allies when finalising the second volume of his history, which included the post‐1870 material that had originally been intended for the first book. Cornforth was again highly enthusiastic: ‘It seems to me to be most extremely good and interesting, a most extraordinarily readable, exciting and creative book’. He remained concerned that Simon should retain his Marxist ideological rigour. For example, he detected at the end of Chapter 9 ‘a most flagrant deviation from Marxism‐Leninism’ in a description that suggested that trade unions were part of the machinery of the State. This, he explained, was an ‘essentially Fabian view’, which had been corrected as long ago as 1932 at the CP Congress at Battersea Town Hall, which he had attended. Nonetheless, both he and Klugmann remained anxious to restrain Simon’s use of Marxist rhetoric, language and argument in order to retain a broad readership. Klugmann suggested that:

Whereas … all the other chapters are beautifully unsectarian and will be appreciated by nonMarxists, even if they don’t accept it all, the first chapter is rather like a short Marxist syllabus on labour history. Even the language is a bit jargony. This is a pity, as it might put some people off before they really begin it. This should be looked into—and perhaps it should be spelt out a bit more and made less like a syllabus.

They also advised him not to indulge in a ‘peroration’ at the end of the volume, unless this was ‘both brief and restrained’. Nevertheless, this volume retained a clear Marxist message, as Frank Jackson, another CP stalwart and a historian of the party, affirmed: ‘I am of the opinion this book can be a real weapon for us in the fight for the “BRITISH ROAD TO SOCIALISM” if we can get a really mass sale or at least a MASS EDUCATION DRIVE on the lines of J[ohn] McLean’. It was without doubt the highest compliment that Jackson could pay to Simon that he compared his work with that of the revolutionary Marxist educator of the CP’s foundation years.


The publication of SHE, consolidated by the second volume five years later, established Simon as the leading historian of education in Britain. Not only had he challenged the basic mentality of other historians in the field, but he had asserted the importance of a new approach, exploring the changing relationship between education and the wider society, ‘as a vital aspect of social history—rather than a flat record of acts and ordinances, punctuated by accounts of the theories of great educators who entertained ideas “in advance of their time”’. Many accolades were to follow in recognition of his contribution. He was promoted to a professorship at Leicester University in 1966, and became a prominent influence in the formation and development of the History of Education Society in Britain, the British Educational Research Association, and the International Standing Conference in the History of Education. After his death, the Institute of Education in London, where he had undergone his training to be a teacher in the 1930s, established a Brian Simon chair in the history of education in his honour. By the same token, Simon was also at the cutting edge of innovation in the international field of the history of education. In the United States, there were already stirrings of revisionism by the late 1950s, but these were loudest in university history departments, and unlike Simon’s work they were not politically radical. It was not until several years later in the late 1960s that radical revisionism informed by Marxist class analysis became fashionable in the United States with the work of Michael Katz and others.

Brian Simon’s contribution as a Marxist historian and educator has not been fully recognised. Choosing to stay with the CP after 1956, his work was less widely noted than that of those who left it at this time, while his devotion to education and position in a university education department also perhaps tended to separate him from the ‘mainstream’ of historians of his generation. Nevertheless, his key role in the CP’s ‘ideological struggle’ in the late 1950s and early 1960s surely marks him out as a highly significant Marxist historian, as well as one of the leading British Marxist educators of his generation. His campaign against intelligence testing and for comprehensive schools was part of this dimension of his work, and more broadly contributed to the politics of reform in this area which achieved success in the 1960s. In the context of the Cold War, he was often denigrated for his Marxist views and political sympathies, and he learned to curb his customary style and rhetoric at least in his published work in order to minimise criticisms of his politics and reach out to a wider audience. Despite these constraints, he successfully produced a people’s history of education in the terms proposed and discussed by Raphael Samuel, shaped in the crucible of politics and penetrated by the influence of ideology on all sides. His work was grounded in Marxist theory and the politics of education, and was forged decisively by the realities of academic discourse in the Cold War. It did embrace the characteristic features of the genre in its basic depiction of a struggle between the working‐class movement and the bourgeoisie. Moreover, it succeeded so well that the field as a whole, certainly in Britain, tended for many years to follow his lead in stressing social class conflict over and above other types of social and political relationship. It remained a massive and inspiring achievement that fully deserves to be remembered, debated and celebrated 50 years on.