Emeritus Professor Brian
Simon died on January 17, aged 86. The following is a personal appreciation of
Brian Simon, written by Professor Maurice Galton:
Brian Simon: A Personal Appreciation
Brian Simon arrived in Leicester to join the newly formed
Education Department at the then University College in 1950 at the age of 35
and was to work here until his retirement in 1980. In his early days at the College there were some 600
registered students of whom 80 were taking education courses. By the time of his retirement the total number had exceeded
5000 and the School of Education annually recruited 200 postgraduate students
to train to teach in Colleges of Further Education and in Primary and
Secondary schools. Almost as many qualified teachers were engaged in education
studies for higher degrees and diplomas, both full-time and part-time. At
various times during this expansion Brian was in charge of the PGCE and also
acted as Director of the School. He
helped establish Leicester as one of the most innovative teacher training
institutions in the country by encouraging initiatives such as the
teacher-tutor scheme and university-school partnership programmes. These were
in place in Leicester some ten years before they became a statutory
requirement of all teacher training in England and Wales.
Brian’s early interests in education no doubt owed much
to his parents, particularly his mother.
She was an active member of the Manchester Education Committee for over
forty years, and for part of this time its chairperson.
Lady Simon was a signatory to the 1938 ‘Spens Report’ on the future
of Secondary schooling and published the first popular book to make the case
for comprehensive education. After
Cambridge Brian enrolled on a postgraduate course of teacher training at the
Institute of Education in London, but war broke out before he could begin his
teaching career. His war service, mostly behind the lines as part of a
reconnaissance unit, took him to North Africa, then Italy and finally with the
Canadian army in France and Germany. On
his return home in 1945 he began his teaching career in Manchester and, in the
course of his first year, gained experience in a selective central school, an
elementary school and then a secondary modern, before gaining a post at
Salford Grammar School where he taught English for the next four years. These
early experiences must have been a major factor in developing his
understanding of the consequences for individual pupils of the selection
system as it operated after the 1944 Education Act, and were the source of his
passionate commitment to the comprehensive ideal. In his autobiography, A
Life in Education, published in 1998, he recounts some of those early
teaching experiences. He tells of
his class in the elementary school where ‘7
children could scarcely read, 2 girls had a tremendous cast in one eye,
another a sore instead of an eye whilst another spat out a bloody tooth during
the lesson’. He also
remarks that the then headteacher, who had been in post for 26 years, was
unable to offer him any constructive advice about how to teach these pupils.
In the accounts of these early experiences one could
already see the emergence of a keen researcher.
Copious notes and observations were made when visiting other
teachers’ classrooms. A diary
recorded events and problems encountered whenever he was teaching.
The pursuit of a Masters degree at Manchester University brought him
into contact with Stephen Wiseman, subsequently Director of the National
Foundation for Educational Research, and Frank Warburton who, in the post-war
period, played an influential role in the up-dating of the British
Intelligence Tests. Reacting
against their psychometric approach, he nevertheless set himself the task of
understanding the various statistical procedures used to measure IQ and began
to publish articles arguing for the end of selection based upon ability.
At the same time, in his capacity as an evening lecturer for the WEA he
started to develop an interest in the history of education.
He began a detailed study of the documentary evidence available during
the 18 and 19th centuries concerning the efforts of ordinary men
and women to educate themselves. From
these beginnings grew the conviction that much conventional thinking, which
attributed the rise in mass education to the efforts of individual
philanthropic reformers and church authorities, was largely misplaced.
He concluded, instead, that many of the reforms were attempts by those
in power to contain the pressure emanating from these early efforts among the
working class to promote self education.
The 60s were a time of immense productivity.
Not only was Brian beginning to publish ‘well
written and scholarly work’ in the History of Education but also his
analysis of intelligence testing bore fruit in a short volume first published
in 1953, under the title’ Intelligence Testing and the Comprehensive School’.
On a visit to the Soviet Union he came into contact with the famous
psychologist, A.R. Luria and marvelled at the way in which children, who in
this country were designated as ‘mentally handicapped’, were helped to
achieve beyond all expectations. Over subsequent years, with the help of his wife Joan,
Luria’s works, as well as other important Russian psychologists such as
Vigotski, were made available to an English speaking audience. By the end of the decade the campaign for comprehensive
education had become so successful that a survey of existing schools was
carried out in collaboration with Caroline Benn, the wife of the then cabinet
minister, Tony Benn. My own early
contacts with Brian began with a request for advice with the statistical
analysis for the subsequent book, ‘Half
Way There’. At this time my
own research concerned the systematic observation of teachers and pupils
during science lessons. Brian
during the 60s had spent time looking at ways in which primary teachers coped
with the move away from streaming, following the demise of selective education
at secondary level, and wished to develop a more structured approach to the
study of teaching. The creation of the Social Science Research Council (SSRC)
afforded him an opportunity to pursue this line of research and in 1975, five
years prior to his retirement, a longitudinal observational study of primary
teaching, which also followed the same children after transfer to the
secondary school, began. Known as
the ORACLE (Observation Research and Classroom Learning Evaluation) project
and co-directed by Brian and myself, it has become one of the most cited
studies in primary education.
The first book, Inside
the Primary Classroom, sold over 10,000 copies (an enormous number for an
educational research publication) and was followed by a series of related
publications. Further studies were undertaken culminating in the late 90’s
with a full-scale replication of the original research. Working closely with Brian on ORACLE proved to be for me a
formative career experience. I
was amazed that a man so distinguished in his chosen field of historical
research should wish, at the age of sixty to begin again to learn the business
of doing classroom research. I
can remember our sitting in a primary classroom at Avenue Road Junior School,
linked together like Siamese twins by ear-pieces feeding into the same
tape-recorder, so that we could code the teacher’s behaviour every 25
seconds on our schedule. I also
recollect his intellectual honesty, in that when the data emanating from our
study did not always correspond with the views of those of his friends, who
were passionate advocates of progressive practice, he nevertheless recorded
the story as it emerged from the analysis without ever seeking to soften the
messages. He taught me above all,
and this came from his historical perspective, that the solutions to problems
identified by the research were not to be arrived at by ‘shaming and
naming’ teachers, but by analysing the systems and the policies that created
situations in schools and in classrooms that limited the ability of teachers
to teach as they might wish.
On his retirement Brian continued to publish at a
prolific rate, bringing his work on the history of English education
up-to-date, defending what he saw as the erosion of the comprehensive ideal
during the Thatcher era, publishing a short autobiography of his life in
education and a biographical account of his family origins.
He was also showered with honorary degrees, being the first Emeritus
Professor to receive an Honorary Doctorate from this University.
He continued to act as examiner where he was renowned for his kindness
and sympathetic treatment of nervous students.
I last saw him in November when I took him a copy of the latest book
from the ORACLE team; a study of transfer to the secondary school, twenty
years on from the original work we had carried out together.
His interests in the detail, his enthusiasm for the subject and the
commitment to the ideals which he had fought for all his academic life,
remained as strong as ever until the last.
In these present times education has become so politicised that
educational professors are chosen to advise governments on policy, largely
because it is perceived that they will ‘toe the line’.
Brian Simon was perhaps lucky to emerge as an important influence on
educational thought at a time when there still existed a degree on consensus
across political parties and where there was a genuine debate about the best
ways to provide equality of opportunity for all, whilst still allowing each
child to attain their full potential in those areas where he or she showed
exceptional talent. The fact that he played a key role in matters concerning the
debate about streaming, the development of comprehensive education, and the
shift towards a better balanced pedagogic economy in the primary classroom
will remain his enduring legacy and will surely earn the gratitude of many
future generations of pupils. It
was my privilege to know him and to work closely with him.