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
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
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
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
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”
But the claim that employers have been making misjudgments about the
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
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.
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
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