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Education and Economic Decline in Britain, 1870 to the 1990s

Author(s):Sanderson, Michael
Reviewer(s):Mitch, David

Published by EH.NET (January 2000)

Michael Sanderson, Education

and Economic Decline in Britain, 1870 to the 1990s. New York: Cambridge

University Press, 1999. viii + 124 pp. $39.95

(cloth), ISBN: 0-521-58170-2; $11.95 (paper), ISBN: 0-521-58842-1.

Reviewed for EH.NET by David Mitch, Department of Economics, University of

Maryland-Baltimore County.

The education of an economy’s workforce can influence its performance in

diverse ways ranging from the productivity of its farm and factory workers to

the ability of its scientists and engineers to develop and diffuse new

technologies to the entrepreneurial and managerial capabilities of its business

leadership. While the protean nature of education makes it an attractive

candidate for explaining economic performance it also makes it problematic for


historian to pin down its actual role in specific situations. The problems

involved can range from controlling for unobservable native ability factors at

the individual level to deciding how to enter education in an aggregate

production function at the macro level.

In the case of the British economy’s relative fall from its Victorian zenith

over the last century, deficiencies in the British educational system have

often been invoked as contributing factors. From Alfred Marshall to David

Landes, critics

of late Victorian economic performance have noted the failure of Britain to

develop a system of formal technical training on the same scale of Germany.

However, defenders of British education such as Sydney Pollard and Roderick

Floud have maintained that the British use of on-the-job training to develop

technical skills was rational given the alternatives.

Michael Sanderson undertakes in the volume under review to survey the debates

that have occurred among “those who would emphasize or deny education’s

contribution or culpability for Britain’s diminished economic state.” (p.2).


volume itself is one in the series New Studies in Social and Economic History

published by Cambridge and of which Sanderson himself is the general editor.

Sanderson is a prominent authority on the history of the relation between

education and the economy in Britain since the industrial revolution. He has

written important work on the role (or lack thereof) of literacy in textile

workforce of Lancashire during the industrial revolution, on the growing

involvement of British universities in industrially relevant scientific and

engineering work in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and on

the failure of Britain to develop extensive secondary level technical training

in the twentieth century.

Sanderson begins with a very brief introduction surveying in just over a page

the evidence for sustained British relative decline in performance over the

past century while acknowledging a parallel rise in absolute levels of

prosperity. At the outset, he explicitly avoids a survey of general

explanations of Britain’s decline, choosing instead to focus specifically on

what role education may have played in decline. He then turns in the first full

chapter of the book to the advent of universal mass schooling and literacy

that occurred in Britain between 1870 and 1914.

While this can generally be seen as a positive aspect of Britain’s educational

performance during this period, Sanderson notes signs of future problems in

subsequent educational development with the reluctance of educational

authorities to support either training in technical courses or higher grade

education more generally as follow-ups to the provision of universal primary

education during this period.

Of the remaining six chapters, four focus primarily on technical and

vocational education, and this primarily at the secondary level. One persistent

theme Sanderson notes in British educational policy, whether in the Victorian

and Edwardian periods covered in chapter 2, the inter-war period covered in

chapter 5, or the postwar period covered in chapter 6, is the reluctance both

of government educational policy makers to support the expansion of secondary

technical training and of employers to hire technical graduates.

Sanderson’s other central theme is the failure of the British educational

system to provide adequately for upward mobility of abler children of

working-class parents. In chapter 4 on Victorian and Edwardian elite education

and in Chapter 7 on higher and public school education in recent decades,

Sanderson argues that despite increasing efforts of universities and elite

schools to develop more relevance for the requirements of industry such as

engineering and business education, too little was done

in either period to recruit able people of humble origins. He argues that this

exclusion has entailed a great waste of talent insofar as mediocre individuals

of privileged background have been able to buy their way into the superior

segments of the British educational system.

Another theme sounded throughout is the excessive emphasis in British education

on self-evidently “useless” knowledge as “mind-trainingly liberal” at the

expense of practical technical and vocational training.

Thus, Sanderson clearly assigns culpability to the British educational system

over the past century for contributing to economic decline. He does so in an

articulate way while generally acknowledging and stating fairly and accurately

the arguments of those whom defend the economic performance of Britain’s

educational system.

However, in a few passages, treatment is not as even handed as it could have

been. In the first chapter on elementary education, Sanderson takes a negative,

dismissive view of the Revised Code of 1861, which based parliamentary grants

to elementary schools on student examination results.

In doing so, he makes no mention of respected, mainstream educational

historians such as John Hurt and David Sylvester who have argued that the

Revised Code made a positive contribution by sustaining ongoing increases in

parliamentary funding for education. In the penultimate sentence of the book,

he cites approvingly the statement of Simon Szreter that education is

“fundamental and essential for the promotion of economic

growth” (p.107),

giving no mention to those, such as the present reviewer, who have questioned

the underlying premise of indispensability in such statements

(see Mitch 1990). But these are exceptions to Sanderson’s generally balanced


Some would probably question Sanderson’s assessment of the importance and

magnitude of education’s contribution to British economic decline. A good deal

of Sanderson’s case is based on the virtues he espouses of technical education

and implicitly of the importance

for on-going economic vitality of the manufacturing sector. He provides no

direct support for these views and makes no mention of opposing perspectives

such as that of Philip Foster in his important piece, “The Vocational School

Fallacy in Development Planning.” In making his case, Sanderson relies heavily

on Germany as a benchmark, noting its much more extensive provision of formal

technical and vocational training, its much greater absolute numbers of

scientists and engineers than Britain, and in the later twentieth century, its

higher scores on internationally comparable math tests. There is an element of

circularity to Sanderson’s argument here. He ultimately seeks to explain how

much of England’s loss of economic superiority to Germany can be explained by

educational deficiencies. Yet he ends up making the case for Britain’s

educational deficiencies based on the fact that its educational system was

different from and by some measures behind Germany’s. However,

as Sanderson at points acknowledges (and this returns to the issue of

indispensability noted above), an economy may face a wide continuum of

economically viable educational strategies and the most appropriate one may

vary according to a country’s particular circumstances. One can note here the

contrast between the emphasis on formal education during the late nineteenth

and early twentieth centuries in the U.S. educational system compared with

Germany’s emphasis on vocational training during a period when by many accounts

the U.S., as well as Germany, was overtaking Britain in economic performance

(see Hansen 1998).

In accounting for Britain’s failure to provide a sufficient total level of

education and under-investment in technical and vocational education,

Sanderson assigns part of the blame

to inadequate government support,

noting the failure of any coherent national policy to develop. Barnett

(1999) in his recent review of Sanderson’s book observes a similar feature.

However, one might argue that in regard to higher education, Britain has

suffered from too much centralization of authority with a resultant stifling of

entrepreneurial responses to emerging training opportunities. A more

pluralistic institutional structure in British higher education might have

produced more responsiveness to

economic demands, arguably a strength of U.S. higher education.

Sanderson reserves his harshest criticism for British employers both for their

apathy about developing a system of technical education and for failing to

provide job openings suitable for the training received by the relatively few

technical graduates who were produced. Critics will reply,

as Sanderson himself acknowledges, that complaints of deficiencies in working

training in the absence of employer demands for such training raise the

question of what Sanderson and other advocates of providing such training know


private employers at the time did not-the McCloskey “if you’re so smart” issue.

Indeed, in chapter 3, Sanderson notes that those who have defended Britain’s

provision of technical training, have pointed to the lack of demand by

employers for same. (pp. 32, 36). The problem Sanderson perceives is that

employers, because of their business culture,

were accustomed both to a system of on-the-job acquisition of skills via

apprenticeship or related methods and to an over-emphasis on “useless

mind-extending” liberal education with a resultant apathy over “useful”

technical qualifications.

But the claim that employers have been making misjudgments about the

educational qualifications

of their workers raises the question of whether employers making bad decisions

about educational qualifications are not likely to have been making further

misjudgments regarding other aspects of their businesses at least as critical.

In other words, the

root problem here would seem to be that of entrepreneurial failure or even a

more deeply rooted conservative business culture unable to adapt to changing

technological circumstances.

This brings one back to Sanderson’s stated intention at the outset of his book

to avoid any general consideration of sources of economic decline but to focus

only on the role of educational factors. A basic problem here is whether the

protean nature of education fundamentally precludes Sanderson’s understandable

desire to de limit the scope of his study. A wide variety of explanations of

economic decline can be seen as involving education in some respect. And it

would seem difficult to establish the role of education in decline without

specifying the more general explanations

of economic decline that are to be considered. Thus both static problems of

resource misallocation and more dynamic ones of developing undesirable

comparative advantage patterns in an increasingly integrated world economy

could be seen as stemming from under-investment in overall levels of education

and from investing in inappropriate types of education. And problems of

entrepreneurial failure have often been blamed on a complacency and stodginess

inculcated by English Public Schools and Oxbridge.

To be

fair, Sanderson touches on a number of the aspects involved in possible

general explanations of decline, whether they be comparative advantage patterns

or entrepreneurial drive. But at a number of points, his discussion could

benefit from more reference

to the relevant general explanation of decline involved. Indeed, his discussion

of the Matthews et al (1982) findings on the contribution of education to

British economic growth based on growth accounting analysis is misleading.

Sanderson interprets the positive contribution of education to growth from

1855 onwards that Matthews et al report as supporting defenders of British

education. As long as there was some expansion of British education, which no

one disputes, it has to be the case that the contribution of education in a

growth accounting analysis would be positive. But the issue for assessing

possible educational failure is how much higher growth rates could have been if

more suitable levels or direction of educational investments had been made, or

to use Sanderson’s phrase, if Britain had actually pursued “missed

opportunities” regarding education. These missed opportunities are not examined

in the Matthews et al analysis of British education.

During the 120 years covered in Sanderson’s survey, the role education played

in particular occupations and sectors of the economy probably changed

considerably. And further changes occurred in how young people initially

entered the labor market, in the role of the school in this transition, and in

how care ers developed. Yet the book only briefly hints at such changes,

noting, for example, that an increase in educational qualifications became

manifest during both the First and Second World Wars.

To a large extent, the issues raised here really lie in the literature that is

being surveyed and in the complexity of the topic that Sanderson has undertaken

to examine. Although he leaves much unanswered about the contribution of

education to British economic decline, Sanderson has still written a very


and helpful little volume. Britain’s educational system has been subject to

major changes at all levels during the 120 years this work considers. The

existing literature on educational developments in Britain during this period

is very fragmented. Previous works have tended to focus on only one specific

aspect of education and for at most a few decades. It is very useful indeed to

have these developments for the educational sector as a whole surveyed so

concisely and in so authoritative and lucid a fashion for the entire 120 years

under consideration.

Sanderson’s book provides an excellent overview of educational developments as

they relate to the economy in Britain between 1870 and the present.

David Mitch is the author of The Rise of Popular Literacy in Victorian

England (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992).


Barnett, Corelli. 1999. Review of Michael Sanderson, Education and Economic

Decline in Britain, 1870 to the 1990s in The Times Literary

Supplement August 6, 1999, pp.4-5.

Foster, Philip J. 1965. “The Vocational School Fallacy in Development Planning”

in C. Arnold Anderson and Mary Jean Bowman eds., Education and Economic

Development (Chicago: Aldine), pp.142-166.

Hansen, Hal E. 1998. “Caps and Gowns: Historical Reflections on the

Institutions that Shaped Learning for and Work in Germany and the United

States, 1800-1945.” Ph.D. Dissertation. University of Wisconsin.

Hurt, John S.1971. Education in Evolution. Church, State, Society and

Popular Education 1800-1870. London: Rupert Hart-Davis.

Matthews, R.C.O., C.H.Feinstein, and J.C. Odling-Smee. 1982. British

Economic Growth 1856-1973. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Mitch, David. 1990. “Education and Economic Growth: Another Axiom of

Indispensability?” in Gabriel Tortella ed., Education and Economic

Development since the Industrial Revolution. Valencia: Generalitat


Sylvester, David. 1974. Robert Lowe and Education. London: Cambridge

University Press.

Subject(s):Education and Human Resource Development
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):General or Comparative