Professor AH Halsey: Acclaimed sociologist who devoted himself to highlighting inequality in society, especially in the field of education


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The Independent Online

AH Halsey, known to everyone as “Chelly”, was a pre-eminent representative of those scholar-intellectuals who returned from wartime in uniform determined to turn the moral sciences to the service of an egalitarian government and the making of a much better society.

Like his old friend, Richard Hoggart, Halsey was born into the respectable and upright poverty of an English working class family in Kentish Town in 1923. His father, a railway worker, moved to the Midlands where, in 1933, his son won a scholarship to Kettering Grammar School, leaving at 16 to become a sanitary inspector’s boy and await the liberation of enlistment as an aircrew cadet.

He was trained to fly in Africa, missed active service in the Pacific by a week and, having written a Ministry report on German POW camps, wasn’t demobilised until 1947, when he took the democratic socialism he learned in the RAF to the London School of Economics.

At LSE, where he met and married his wife, Margaret, he was taught, by RH Tawney and Morris Ginsberg, the principles of what, in a phrase borrowed from the commonwealth interregnum of the 17th century which he particularly liked, he called “political arithmetic”. That is to say, he joined stern empirical inquiry into society to the best hopes one could have for its improvement.

In 1988 he published with his friend and comrade, Norman Dennis, a study of his great tradition, English Ethical Socialism. At a time when  those excellent values were in low public esteem, he summoned up the giants of the past in order to reaffirm the necessity of their belief in equality, social justice, common decency.

He began early on this reaffirmation. In 1958, he published, with Jean Floud, one of the most politically influential studies of education ever written. In Social Class and Educational Opportunity the two authors used the statistics they uncovered to prove just how radically inequitable was access to grammar school education and therefore future life chances.

Not only was the geographic distribution of grammar schools impossibly uneven, but those who won the places were disproportionately middle-class. When Anthony Crosland became Secretary of State and issued his famous circular 10/65, ordering all local authorities to present plans for comprehensive education, Floud and Halsey provided his justification.

Halsey became grand seigneur of the sociology of education in Britain. Throughout his work there runs the strong, generous-hearted, public-spirited vein of classical Fabianism, and he illustrated its virtues in every publication. He combined an active preoccupation with the nature and meaning of the university in modern life with a lifelong attention to the facts of social opportunity, the dead weight of the English class system, the infinitely difficult question of how far nurture qualifies nature.

In Origins and Destinations (1980, with Anthony Heath), though it was much criticised for its concentration on boys, Halsey conducted the last mammoth review of the relations between your family and your chances, and quietly demolished the bien-pensant view that on the whole Britain was getting fairer as she became more meritocratic. In The Decline of Donnish Dominion (1992), he quite unself-protectively traced the steady diminution of academic prestige and the concomitant damage done to such key values as intellectual authority, scholarly apprenticeship and above all to the institutional memory sustained by universities and vital to society.

He had moved to the academic heart of social policy-making in 1962 when he became Director of Barnett House, Oxford, and was elected a Fellow of Nuffield. Between 1965 and 1968 he was adviser to the Secretary of State and, again, when the Wilson government was returned in 1974, Halsey became the first sociologist (and the most obvious) to prepare a new policy for what was becoming the desperate plight of inner-city schools and their pupils. After the disappearance of Education Priority Areas under the Thatcher administration, it was a great pleasure to Halsey to note their return as Education Action Zones after 1997.

Implicit in all his work had been that attempt to envision and explain the movement of a whole society, which is the task of sociology. Education, the allocation of success and ignorance, is merely the main engine of modernity, and as such its key problematic.  So when Halsey was invited to give the Reith Lectures in 1977, “Change in British Society” was his grand and commonplace theme, and there could hardly have been a wiser or more equable guide to his beloved nation’s vicissitudes.

In the lectures, and in his several revisitings and expansions of the subject since, Halsey weighed the gains in individual fulfilment and material welfare (bathrooms, cars, holidays) against the losses in class membership, honest politics, strong neighbourhoods. With his habitual steadiness as well as his sociological impartiality, he instructed his people in the joys and horribleness of late capitalism, and warned them, in accents borrowed from his teacher, Tawney, of the menace to life held out by mere money.

He returned one last time to an estimate of his times in No Discouragement, a new classic in the old genre of working-class autobiography. There were still plenty of books to come, but this one may serve as his valediction. In it, the man speaks to and for his people as he was: strikingly handsome, settled easily in the convictions of Christian Socialism and the peace of a loving domesticity (his wife of 55 years, Margaret, died in spring 2004), speaking with a modest eloquence of what a rational sociology may do for an honourable politics and a good society, and – quite without self-congratulation – of the chances provided by the academic vocation to discover and to live its special virtues.

Halsey was a great Englishman. No one can doubt how fully he exemplified one of the best such lives.

Albert Henry Halsey, sociologist: born 13 April 1923; married 1949 Gertrude Margaret Littler (died 2004; two daughters, three sons); died 14 October 2014.