Britain’s transition to mass education

Madeley Secondary Modern
Madeley Secondary Modern school photo 1948 (credit: Their History/Flickr)

Peter Mandler’s research on Britain’s transition to mass education has contributed a unique perspective to public debate and policy formation on school organisation and curricula, and on higher education curriculum and research policy. His work has emphasised long-term social, cultural, economic and demographic determinants of educational change lying behind apparent short-term policy determinants.

Underpinning these outcomes has been Mandler’s research on the significance of popular attitudes to education in a period of declining deference, growing aspiration and rapidly changing labour markets, and the complex relationship between education and social mobility.

His analysis of subject choice in secondary and higher education showed for the first time that, contrary to standard assumptions, mass participation led to the relative decline of STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) from the 1960s to the 2010s.

More generally, Mandler’s research delivers a reality check to policymakers’ illusions about the reach and significance of their own actions, and draws attention to the value of arm’s-length relations between state and society, and the continuing force of demand-driven behaviours in determining the shape of the world in which we live.

The research has informed key interventions by the Royal Historical Society, the British Academy and the Arts and Humanities Alliance, and enhanced and informed public understanding of educational change in Britain and internationally on radio, in the press, on social media and in international policy circles.

With funding from the Economic and Social Research Council, the project has more recently recruited memories and experiences of diverse postwar generations’ secondary schooling to raise awareness of the impact of society on education and vice-versa, and has used this awareness to point to new directions for the teaching of British history in schools.