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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.

Maurice Galton
February 2002

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