A forgotten educational pioneer

The cover of 'A Critical Woman'Barbara Wootton was a social scientist, a policy-reformer, an environmental campaigner, a magistrate, a novelist, the first woman to give University lectures in Cambridge, the first woman life peer in the House of Lords, and much, much else.

My attention was first drawn to her when I was taken at the age of thirteen by my father, a London University professor, to meet her in her house in Surrey. She lived there with two donkeys, which impressed me. Later on as an economics student I read her astoundingly sensible The Social Foundations of Wage Policy – which begins with a famous comparison between her own academic salary and that of the elephant which gave rides to children at Whipsnade Zoo (it was better to be the elephant) – and then, even later than that, when I was struggling to set up an enterprise of systematic reviews of social research, I was gripped by her Social Science and Social Pathology, with its cutting analysis of the parlous state of much so-called social ‘science’ research.

I think the best analogy for writing a biography is crime fiction. Both begin with a dead body, and both require the abilities of a super-sleuth to tease out the realities behind multiple layers of speculation. A Critical Woman took me four years to research and write, and happily the publishers never noticed that I exceeded the word limit specified in my contract by about 50,000 words. What can you do when somebody lives such a long time
(91 years) and does so much? They had to forcibly retire Baroness Wootton as Deputy Speaker (she was the first woman to sit on the Woolsack – a most uncomfortable place, she called it) in the House of Lords in her 89th year. What a radical socialist was doing in the House of Lords in the first place was one among many puzzles about her life I had to unravel; another was her ambivalent position in relation to higher education and the university system.
In the course of her life Barbara Wootton collected thirteen honorary degrees, but she said she could never get over being allowed to have any kind of degree. In the Cambridge of 1919 when she finished her studies in economics at Girton College, she gained the best first-class degree in that subject anyone had ever had, but women were not allowed (until 1948) to have degrees. When a few years on, as Director of Studies in Economics at Girton, she gave some University lectures, these had to be advertised as being given by a man. Her experiences at her alma mater of discrimination, snobbery and status-hierarchy drove her away into the arms of research for the TUC and the Labour Party, and then into a long career running tutorial classes for the extra-mural department of the University of London.

There exists in the archives at Senate House a charming little brown notebook in Barbara Wootton’s handwriting.

It records the abilities or otherwise of people who wanted to teach University of London extra-mural classes. Some of the names in the book are now so famous that, when the Senate House archivist spotted me reading it, he took it away. Barbara did a sterling job for 17 years (from 1927 to 1944) running the extra-mural department, work that involved not only teaching classes herself, and selecting tutors, but finding premises, monitoring and supervising the teaching, and sorting out problems which could range from broken gas fires and the shortage of books to serious misbehaviour (of either students or tutors). The fact that the enterprise kept going throughout the difficult years of the Second World War was a tribute to her energy: in 1943-4 there were 88 different classes, with 1,583 students, to manage. Extra-mural work also raised the very knotty issue of academic standards.

Every year, Barbara read hundreds of specimen essays sent to her by class tutors on subjects as diverse as ‘the Desirability of Paid Magistrates’ and ‘the Character of Mercutio’, and every year she held up her hands in despair. The problem was a clash between the openness of the extra-mural system and conventional standards of scholarship. Students selected their own classes, rather than being selected by the system; some took classes just to meet other students, some were understandably after qualifications that would get them better jobs or more pay. Many did not appreciate that academic work is more than just recycling what the tutor has told you, or reciting your own experience. (This is a problem teachers in higher education today will still recognise.)

The adult education movement, which embraced structures such as the one Barbara Wootton ran in London and the Workers’ Educational Association, with which she also worked, was an extremely important route into education for those whose social positions had provided them with minimal or even no secondary education at all. Barbara Wootton was passionately committed to it. Education for her was both a democratic right and an instrument of democracy. She believed in universal free state education, in comprehensive schools, in universities as places which would generate practical knowledge to inform public policy. But she found herself historically in an awkward place, caught between the traditional values of ivory-tower scholarship (her parents were both classicists and she herself had read classics at Cambridge before changing to economics), and the practical purposes of education, which were about empowerment and attainment.

This clash of values worked itself out in her personal life.

Her first husband, Jack Wootton, was another Cambridge student; they married when she was twenty, but Jack was killed five weeks later in the Battle of Passchendaele. When she married again eighteen years later, her second husband, George Wright, was one of her extra-mural students. He came from a working class family in west London, had not had a great deal of schooling, and drove a taxi for a living. The political left was delighted at what LSE students, who dispatched a wedding telegram, called ‘a union of theory and practice’; Beatrice Webb wrote to congratulate Barbara on taking ‘a partner in research’. George and Barbara had a lot of fun together for a few years, but doing research wasn’t part of it. George was a great character: he behaved as though the classless society already existed, said Barbara. Unfortunately he also behaved quite badly, having various ‘secondary wives’, which eventually caused Barbara to leave him, and being dismissed from his job at Transport House because they found him running a little secretarial business on the side.

One of the first of Barbara’s many articles and academic papers I read was called ‘Reflections on resigning a professorship’. She published it in 1952, but it’s a startlingly modern piece, and it tells part of the unhappy story of Barbara’s sojourn in mainstream higher education.

In 1944 she applied for two posts that were advertised at the same time: a Professorship in Social Institutions at LSE and a Readership in Social Studies at Bedford College. The famous William Beveridge wrote her references. Barbara and Beveridge had worked together on his social security plan, and also on a shared vision of a union of nations committed to world peace – the ground-plan of what would later become the European Community. The LSE job went to a male theorist, and Barbara went to Bedford College, then an all-female college, to take charge of what was basically a department of social workers. In 1948 they elevated her to a professorship and she chose the title of ‘social studies’ rather than social science or sociology. She disliked the term ‘sociology’ as pretentious, and social studies weren’t yet scientific enough to justify that name.

The late 1940s and early 1950s were a period of expansion for social studies/science, and especially for social research.

The Clapham Committee, reporting in 1946, recommended an injection of between £6.5 and £7.8 million (at 2010 prices) into social and economic research. The University Grants Committee expanded its grant for this purpose, and Barbara in her new Bedford College post was one of the beneficiaries. She set up one of the first (if not the first) social research unit, and embarked on an ambitious programme of empirical research. This story did not have a happy ending, however, as the opposition of colleagues and especially historian Lillian Penson, who was also Vice-Chancellor of the University of London, resulted in the grant being handed back to the UGC and the research unit being disbanded. Barbara, thoroughly disillusioned with the standards of academic behaviour, applied for and got a Nuffield Foundation grant to study the state of social research. Bedford consented to house the research in the old servants’ quarters in Regent’s Park, but stripped Barbara of her professorial title.

Before the Nuffield work was finished, Barbara became Baroness Wootton of Abinger, and started a new career (at the age of 61) as the House of Lords expert on economics, criminal justice, environmental issues and many other more interesting topics than the petty squabbles of academic life. Her vision of how the higher education system could produce sensible and practical knowledge for politicians and policy-makers was, perhaps, simply too far ahead of its time.

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