Basil Bernstein was one of the most inventive British sociologists in the second half of the twentieth century. Unlike many of his peers, he also had an important influence on policy. I do not believe this was ever his intention. His ideas were not crafted with policy change in mind, nor did he write for or mix with policy makers. Had he been invited to give policy advice I doubt if he would have accepted. He was too much of an intellectual free spirit to accept the constraints of policy frameworks and too irreverent to engage seriously and in a sustained way with decision makers. Yet he was not uninterested in educational policy and he held strong political convictions.

I met him first at a seminar at LSE in the late 1960s at which he gave a talk on his continuing work on language and how it was shaped by social structure and social circumstances. I was riveted. Some sociologists have the knack of writing in a way that challenges and engages the reader but are much less successful in talking about their ideas and shaping an interesting discussion around them. Basil could do both. He was particularly skilled at provocation in debate, made easier by the fact that he did not care much if he caused offence. He liked to be challenged and he expected others to enjoy it as much as he did. Ten years after this first meeting we became colleagues. I joined the Institute of Education, becoming the Professor of Educational Administration, where I worked on educational policy next door to his Department of the Sociology of Education. Whilst our work did not really coincide much, I enjoyed his companionship and discussions about Institute ‘politics’ with him where he took great pleasure in knocking the ‘establishment’ with a roguish smile and a glorious turn of phrase.

We were also both external examiners for the Polytechnic of East London Sociology Degree. Why as a distinguished professor he took this on I never fully understood: a sense of duty to the profession, perhaps? Anyway it gave us an opportunity twice a year to drive together in my battered yellow Datsun from Bloomsbury to Barking. I never quite knew the way. Basil certainly didn't. But he talked non-stop about everything other than the route, making it that much more difficult for me to navigate my way through unknown streets in north-east London. Once there, he engaged with the other examiners enthusiastically and was always delighted to promote for a ‘first’ a candidate whose papers he thought were original as well as of merit in other respects.

Amongst those examination papers we marked in the late 1970s and early 1980s were many questions about the relationship between social class and educational opportunities and social class and educational achievement. Indeed this had become a central preoccupation of the sociology of education throughout the sixties, seventies and eighties. Bernstein was not, of course, the first sociologist to explore issues around social class and schooling. David Glass's social mobility studies alluded to them. Jean Floud and A.H. Halsey's work on social class and selection for different types of secondary education (Floud, Halsey and Martin 1956) explored the question of who went to grammar schools and how and why working-class children's access to these schools was restricted. This work, which was published in the 1950s, influenced the policy debate and promoted further research, more directly than Bernstein's 1959 article (Bernstein 2010 [1959]). Some of this research explored the reasons for educational success amongst working-class children; an excellent example is Brian Jackson and Denis Marsden's early 1960s study (Jackson and Marsden 1962) which focused on the role of mothers who had become downwardly mobile through their marriages but had retained middle-class aspirations for their children. Other slightly later studies moved out of family contexts into school contexts, such as David Hargreaves' examination of social relations between pupils in streamed secondary schools (Hargreaves 1967).

The two most important British policy reviews of the period were: the Newsom Report entitled ‘Half our Future’, (Central Advisory Council for Education (CACE) 1963) which was essentially about the failure of secondary modern schools to provide their pupils with the life chances they deserved; and the Plowden Report on primary schools (CACE 1967), the first government sponsored report on education which undertook a substantial research programme of its own.

‘Half our Future’ had a foreword by Edward Boyle, a progressive Tory who was the then Secretary of State for Education. It was remarkable in that it stated that ‘the essential point is that all children should have an equal opportunity of acquiring intelligence’ (CACE 1963). In other words a conservative politician was rejecting the weak version of equality, as defined by Antony Crosland, for the strong version. The weak version assumed that access to selective education is based not on birth or wealth but on measured intelligence so that all children of the same measured intelligence have completely equal access. The strong version acknowledged that measured intelligence is affected by environment, income and parental attitudes and stated that in Crosland's words ‘every child should have the same opportunity for acquiring measured intelligence so far as this can be controlled by social action’ (Crosland 1961). This was a position to which Bernstein subscribed. The difficult question was what social actions were needed to deliver this outcome. One of the preoccupations of the Newsom report was early leaving and the large class differentials in the age at which children left school. A curriculum which would motivate and interest ‘less able’ secondary school pupils was considered by Newsom to be one desirable action (CACE 1963). Such an approach cut across the aims of those who were promoting the abolition of selection and a common curriculum across comprehensive schools. Bernstein's article could perhaps have been interpreted to support either approach. However in some of his later work he argued that the traditional curriculum is not accessible to those without access to the necessary cultural capital, so that they are unable to take advantage of what is on offer in their schools. In this sense he was implicitly endorsing the Newsom report.

The Plowden report published four years after Newsom's report had the advantage of being able to draw on a great deal more research and debate which had happened in the interim, not only in the UK, but also in the USA. It began with the premise ‘at the heart of the educational process lies the child’. It is this child-centeredness which shapes many of its conclusions and recommendations and for which it was subsequently criticized by conservative educationalists. It was also more preoccupied than earlier national reports with ‘disadvantaged’ children and with the effects of cultural and class differences in parental attitudes. This led to its most radical recommendation for positive discrimination through the provision of extra resources for Educational Priority Areas. The areas were to be designated on the basis of criteria such as socio-economic composition, overcrowding, poor attendance and truancy, and the number of children unable to speak English. The aim was to reach the 10 per cent of most deprived children. The report also advocated greater involvement of parents in schools. This recommendation derived directly from its own research, which showed that parental attitudes accounted for a much higher proportion of the variation in achievement than variables relating to home circumstances or schooling. Another of Plowden's important recommendations was the expansion of pre-school education for children under five. Part of the rationale for more nursery education was to support improved educational outcomes for children from low income families with priority for this expansion in Educational Priority Areas. Implicit was the assumption that an earlier start at school would enrich the environment of working-class urban children or even compensate for the poverty, both cultural and economic, of their homes.

What Basil Bernstein had done in his article on ‘A Public Language’ was to trigger much greater interest in the different social circumstances and linguistic cultures in which children were being raised and how this might affect how they coped with learning at school. As he put it, ‘the linguistic form is a powerful conditioner of what is learnt, how it is learnt, and so influences future learning’ (Bernstein 2010 [1959]: 63 [322]). At the heart of what he was saying and which he developed much further in his later work on linguistic codes was that differences in early childhood socialization and in ways of communicating have implications for how children from different backgrounds respond to school. He maintained in a later article that the middle-class child learns to use an ‘elaborated’ communication code which ‘orientates the child early towards the significance of relatively context independent meanings’ (Bernstein 1977). The middle-class mother is a ‘powerful and crucial agent of reproduction who provides access to symbolic forms and who shapes the disposition of her children so that they are better able to exploit the possibilities of education’ (Bernstein 1977).

Some of the later debate focused on whether or not children from disadvantaged backgrounds suffered from linguistic deficits. Those who claimed this supported notions of cultural deprivation. Others disagreed and argued that cultural difference was the appropriate concept given that most socially disadvantaged children do not have language or cognitive defects and that they come to school with the same ability to reason as middle-class children. The experiences of these children were claimed to be sufficient for normal cognitive and linguistic development. This dispute, whilst theoretically interesting, was arid and unhelpful from the point of view of policy makers. Even if children from different socio-economic backgrounds have the same range and distribution of linguistic and cognitive ability, children from working-class backgrounds may fail to use their ability in the classroom, because they have difficulty in transferring skills acquired elsewhere to their school experiences. In other words they are less able than middle-class children to use their intellectual skills in a wide variety of social situations.

Basil Bernstein's article on ‘A Public Language’ and his later work posed a challenge to policy makers and indeed the teacher in the classroom on how to ensure that all children are provided with the means to adapt their linguistic and intellectual skills to a classroom context. This is reflected in the Plowden report in countless ways. For example it asks for more research on types of reading schemes and what kinds of library books work best for or interest and motivate children from different social backgrounds. And its conclusion that ‘a strengthening of parental encouragement may produce better performance in school’ (Bernstein and Davies 1969) is a much broader example. Interestingly, Bernstein was not convinced that encouraging schools to increase their contacts with parents would, by itself, raise the achievements of working-class children. There is no doubt, however, that he would have wanted the blackboard removed which said ‘No Parents Beyond this Point’ in that famous picture of a primary school entrance in the 1960s.

Have we made progress fifty years on? Of course we have. Does the challenge that Bernstein presented us with still exist? Of course it does. Large disparities in income and the continuing existence of child poverty – despite attempts by consecutive Labour governments to reduce it dramatically with the ultimate aim of eliminating it – pose insurmountable barriers to achieving the application of Crosland's strong version of equal opportunities. The old adage that ‘education cannot compensate for society’ still stands. But schools can make a difference and do, and Basil Bernstein's lasting contribution is to add something to our understanding of how.


  1. Top of page
  2. Bibliography
  • Bernstein, B. 1959 A Public Language: Some Sociological Implications of a Linguistic Form’, Blackwell Publishing.
  • Bernstein, B. and Davies, B. 1969 Perspectives on Plowden, Penguin.
  • Bernstein, B. 1977 Class and Pedagogies: Visible and Invisible’ in J.Karabel and A.H.Halsey (eds) Power and Ideology in Education, Oxford University Press. Also in Class, Codes and Control, Vol. III (1975), Routledge and Kegan Paul.
  • Bernstein, B.A. 2010 1959 Public Language: Some Sociological Implications of a Linguistic Form’, The British Journal of Sociology – The BJS: Shaping Sociology Over 60 Years: 5369. [Originally published in 1959 British Journal of Sociology 10(4): 311–26.
  • Central Advisory Council for Education (England) 1963 Half Our Future (The Newsom Report), HMSO.
  • Central Advisory Council for Education (England) 1967 Children and their Primary Schools (The Plowden Report), HMSO.
  • Crosland, C.A.R. 1961 Some Thoughts on English Education’, Encounter 17.
  • Floud, J.E., Halsey, A.H., and Martin, F.M. 1956 Social Class and Educational Opportunity, Heinemann.
  • Hargreaves, D.H. 1967 Social Relations in a Secondary School, Routledge and Kegan Paul.
  • Jackson, B. and Marsden, D. 1962 Education and the Working Class, Routledge and Kegan Paul.