Book reviews

Education in Spite of Policy
Robin Alexander (2022)
Mary Warnock: Ethics, Education and Public Policy in Post-War Britain
Philip Graham (2021)
Enfield Voices
Tom Bourner and Tony Crilly (eds) (2018)
Who Cares About Education? ... going in the wrong direction
Eric Macfarlane (2016)
Grammar School Boy: a memoir of personal and social development
John Quicke (2016)
The Passing of a Country Grammar School
Peter Housden (2015)
Living on the Edge: rethinking poverty, class and schooling
John Smyth and Terry Wrigley (2013)
Education under Siege: why there is a better alternative
Peter Mortimore (2013)
New Labour and Secondary Education, 1994-2010
Clyde Chitty (2013)
Politics and the Primary Teacher
Peter Cunningham (2012)
School Wars: The Battle for Britain's Education
Melissa Benn (2011)
Children, their World, their Education
Robin Alexander (ed) (2010)
Education Policy in Britain
Clyde Chitty (2nd ed. 2009)
School behaviour management
Lane, Kalberg and Menzies (2009) and Steege and Watson (2009)
Supporting the emotional work of school leaders
Belinda Harris (2007)
Faith Schools: consensus or conflict?
Roy Gardner, Jo Cairns and Denis Lawton (eds) (2005)
The Professionals: better teachers, better schools
Phil Revell (2005)
Education Policy in Britain
Clyde Chitty (2004)
Who Controls Teachers' Work?
Richard M Ingersoll (2003)
Faith-based Schools and the State
Harry Judge (2002)
The Best Policy? Honesty in education 1997-2001
Paul Francis (2001)
Love and Chalkdust
Paul Francis (2000)
State Schools - New Labour and the Conservative Legacy
Clyde Chitty and John Dunford (eds) (1999)
Experience and Education: Towards an Alternative National Curriculum
Gwyn Edwards and AV Kelly (eds) (1998)
Bullying: Home, School and Community
Delwyn Tattum and Graham Herbert (eds) (1997)
Bullying in Schools And what to do about it
Ken Rigby (1996)
A Community Approach to Bullying
Peter Randall (1996)
Teacher Education and Human Rights
Audrey Osler and Hugh Starkey (1996)
Troubled and Vulnerable Children: a practical guide for heads
Shelagh Webb (1994)
Supporting Schools against Bullying
Scottish Council for Research in Education (1994)
Bullying: a practical guide to coping for schools
Michele Elliott (1992)
Financial Delegation and Management of Schools: preparing for practice
Hywel Thomas with Gordon Kirkpatrick and Elizabeth Nicholson (1989)
Reforming Religious Education: the religious clauses of the 1988 Education Reform Act
Edwin Cox and Josephine M Cairns (1989)
Re-thinking Active Learning 8-16
Norman Beswick (1987)
Two Cultures of Schooling: The case of middle schools
Andy Hargreaves (1986)


Mary Warnock: Ethics, Education and Public Policy in Post-War Britain
Philip Graham 2021
Cambridge: Open Book Publishers
350pp., Paperback 23.95 ISBN 978 1800643 383, Hardback 33.95 ISBN 978 1800643 390
Free download (pdf) at Open Book Publishers

Review by Derek Gillard
January 2022

copyright Derek Gillard 2022
This book review is my copyright. You are welcome to download it and print it for your own personal use, or for use in a school or other educational establishment, provided my name as the author is attached. But you may not publish it, upload it onto any other website, or sell it, without my permission.



Before I read Philip Graham's book, the only thing I knew about Mary Warnock was that she chaired the committees which produced two major reports - on Special Educational Needs (1978) and on Human Fertilisation and Embryology (1984).

Having read the book, I now know that her contributions to public life in Britain were many and varied and spanned half a century.

As a member of Oxfordshire's education authority she encouraged the development of music teaching in the county. She was headmistress of Oxford High School, a research fellow at Lady Margaret Hall, Mistress of Girton College Cambridge, and a member of the Independent Broadcasting Authority. She chaired an Arts Council working party (on the management and financing of the Royal Opera House), and the Home Office Committee on Animal Experimentation (which considered philosophical issues about the relationship of humans to other species). She served on the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, the Spoliation Advisory Panel (set up to consider claims to ownership of cultural objects seized by the Nazis), and a House of Lords Select Committee on Medical Ethics. As an active member of the Lords she contributed to debates on, among other things, euthanasia. She wrote countless articles and more than twenty books, and frequently took part in radio and television programmes.

And, as if all that were not enough, she had five children with her husband Geoffrey, who was Principal of Hertford College and later Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford.

She remained active until the autumn of 2018 and died of a major stroke in March 2019. She would have died instantly, says Graham, 'thus succeeding in her determination to live her life to the end without being a burden to anyone' (page 323).

When it was suggested that I might review this book I was initially doubtful because it seemed to me to be largely about philosophy, a subject in which I have no expertise. I need not have worried. Philip Graham (who is an academic child and adolescent psychiatrist) writes about complex philosophical ideas - logical positivism, existentialism etc - in language which makes them comprehensible, even to those who, like me, have little knowledge of them.

His credentials for writing Mary Warnock's biography are impressive. He first met her in 1974 when he was appointed a member of the special needs committee, and the two remained friends for the rest of her life. He had access to family papers, and he enjoyed the support and help of family members and many others who knew Mary.

He has successfully combined accounts of Mary's developing ideas with stories illustrating her day-to-day life to produce a text full of interest and humanity. He notes, for example, that among Mary's lasting memories of her time at Oxford were the privations of war: not enough to eat, not enough warmth, unappetising meals in Hall, and the darkness resulting from the blackout. She enjoyed horse riding, poetry and talking to friends, but seems to have had little interest in boyfriends.

There are amusing anecdotes. For example:

On one occasion, an undergraduate who had climbed up a drainpipe, looking he said, for a friend, came into their bedroom where the Warnocks were asleep. On Mary's account, 'Geoffrey, by threats of the police, got him to give his name and college, and escorted him out of the front door. The next day he sent a large cheque for the college appeal, and an apology. But he was a bright chap, and he also sold his story to one of the tabloids, claiming that he had surprised us in bed discussing the philosopher, Kant' (page 133).
As with all the best biographies, I found myself increasingly drawn to its subject. For all her intellectual ability, Mary had a wry sense of humour and was often self-deprecating. In one of her early diaries, for example, she wrote that she would get married 'if I met anyone who wished to marry me (almost impossible) and, in return, I wished to marry (very unlikely)' (page 68).

And, much later,

When Elaine Murphy first took her seat in the Chamber [the House of Lords], she sat next to Mary who whispered to her 'I gather you are a psychogeriatrician.' When Elaine admitted she was, Mary responded 'Ah well, you'll have plenty of trade here' (pages 318-9).

Users of this website will find two chapters of particular interest. In chapter 6, 'What Are Schools For?', Graham discusses Mary's views on education; and in chapter 7, 'All Change for Special Education' he gives a detailed account of the work of the special needs committee and assesses the impact of its report. Of Mary's role as chair, he writes:

Mary Warnock herself should take most of the credit. From the moment I walked into the first meeting in September 1974 ... it was clear she was going to be a leader in every sense. ... She certainly listened to the views of others, but it was she who formulated the key principles and she who achieved consensus when disagreements between committee members threatened to be irreconcilable. She had remarkable energy combined with formidable critical powers of analysis (page 184).
The book is beautifully presented. It includes a dozen illustrations, a subject index, and a comprehensive bibliography. Graham's writing style makes the book an easy and enjoyable read. The text itself is remarkably clean: in 327 pages, I noticed just one typographical error - the full stop in '400.000 people' (page 151) should, of course, be a comma.

I spotted one factual error: Jim Callaghan's 1976 speech on education was given at Ruskin College, not at Nuffield College (page 155).

And I take issue with Graham on a couple of points. First, he notes that, as head of Oxford High School, Mary was dismayed by the poor basic skills in English and maths of some of the girls, and that she disapproved of the child-centred approach to teaching in which children learned by a process of discovery. Graham says this was 'the prevailing philosophy in British primary schools at that time' (page 148). In fact, the child-centred approach was never as prevalent as its critics - such as the writers of the so-called 'Black Papers' - asserted. In 1978, for example, HMI reported that 'about three quarters of the teachers employed a mainly didactic approach, while less than one in twenty relied mainly on an exploratory approach' (HMI Primary education in England, page 27).

And second, I would dispute his claim that the 1944 Education Act was 'best known for introducing selection of children at the age of eleven to enter grammar, secondary modern or technical schools' (page 172). While this is certainly what happened, the Act itself required only that pupils should be offered 'such variety of instruction and training as may be desirable in view of their different ages, abilities, and aptitudes' (Section 8(1)). This could have been achieved in a comprehensive system: it was Attlee's postwar Labour government which chose to segregate children into different types of school.

But these are minor quibbles about what, in every other respect, is a superb piece of work.

Of his role as Mary's biographer, Graham says:

It is the task of the biographer to exercise their own imagination in creating a coherent account which, it may be hoped, conveys some truth and insight, based as Mary would have insisted, on evidence rather than opinion ... If I have been successful in writing a coherent, truthful account, then, again in Mary's ambitious words, I may have achieved 'understanding, a quite general insight into how things are, not only from my own standpoint, but absolutely universally' (page 258).
I believe Philip Graham has done just that. His book is a serious and intellectual biography but also a readable and entertaining one - no mean achievement. It will appeal to various audiences: for those with an interest in philosophy and ethics, it provides a unique insight into the mind of one Britain's most celebrated thinkers; for social historians, it offers an account of the changing role of women in the late twentieth century; while educational historians will find the chapter on the work of the special needs committee of particular interest.

But it will also appeal to the general reader because, above all, it as a fascinating story of the life of a remarkable woman.

The following documents, referred to above, are available online:

Warnock Report (1978) Special Educational Needs
Jim Callaghan (1976) Ruskin College speech
HMI (1978) Primary education in England
1944 Education Act

  • This review was published in Forum 64(1) Spring 2022 103-106.