A Genesis and Genealogy of British Curriculum Studies

This paper focuses on one field - curriculum studies. It briefly describes the British context and the origins of British curriculum studies. It then reviews Bernstein's later judgements about the field and finally assesses his judgements in the light of some of the insights from sociological study of the curriculum which, as we shall see, he was so important in stimulating.
This paper should probably be sub-titled the "Britishness of Basil Bernstein". For in a basic sense, it argues that to understand Bernstein's particular characterisations of educational study, we have to locate these within the socio-political and historical milieu in which he was writing.

I should also point out at the outset that my own position is far from value-neutral in calling forth any judgements. I studied with Bernstein in the 1969-70 period at the Institute of Education in London. This was a fascinating period to be around, for at that time he and his colleagues were putting together the volume Knowledge and Control. In doing so, they were reconstituting the field of sociology of curriculum and hence initiating many of the insights and scholarly lines of inquiry which were to challenge earlier and later simplifications.

In this paper, I want to focus on one field curriculum studies. I shall briefly describe the British context, and the origins of British curriculum studies, then look at Bernstein's later judgements about the field and finally assess his judgements in the light of some of the insights from sociological study of the curriculum which, as we shall see, he was so important in stimulating.

The Britishness of Basil Bernstein: Two Snapshots of the British Landscape in the 1960s and 1970s

1. Sociological Terrain

Basil Bernstein began his writing in Britain at a time when the consensus among sociologists of education about what constituted worthwhile sociological study was just beginning to face a methodological crisis, partly of its own making. The previous decade had seen the emergence of a series of related studies which had revealed the effects of educational selection (the `11+' exam for selection to grammar school) upon equity of provision in secondary schools. A major outcome from this research was the emergence of comprehensive secondary schooling as a key Labour party policy to promote more equitable provision, a policy that was first implemented in the late fifties and early sixties, initially by Labour controlled local authorities and then, following a central government directive in 1965, across the country.

The 'crisis' for sociology existed at a number of levels. On the one hand the previous generation of research had achieved its objective in terms of changing the organisation of secondary schooling. Yet there was some sense of unease that all was not well in the comprehensive system. A number of small scale studies suggested that the key variables of social class and educational attainment remained closely associated even in the context of an 'open' system. However, it proved difficult to find ways of doing research which investigated the processes of schooling because the methodologies that were generally accepted lacked the ability to look inside schools and classrooms and to investigate curricula. Sociologists were mostly restricted, as Walker wrote at the time, 'to standing outside the school gates counting as children from different social class backgrounds came and went through different doors'.

In the early sixties, there were signs of alternative approaches emerging at the margins. Basil Bernstein's work at the Institute of Education, was the most important example of this alternative work. Bernstein's work provided a window on the socially constructed nature of education as it impinged on language and curriculum in particular. This work provided insights into those questions of politics and power which much of the existing study ignored or obscured. To be, a student in Bernstein's classes and lectures at the Institute in the sixties was to be initiated into a corpus of work that in a variety of ways revolutionised the study of education and curriculum.

At the risk of being self-indulgent, let me provide one biographical lens on the experience of Britain as a class society in the 1960s and 1970s, for it is from this context that Bernstein's work arose.
Date of publication:
Paper given at American Educational Research Association, Chicago, 1991
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