Jean Floud: Sociologist whose work revealed the impact of class on educational attainment


Wednesday 15 May 2013 18:28 BST
Floud in 1977, when she was the influential and popular Principal of Newnham College, Cambridge
Floud in 1977, when she was the influential and popular Principal of Newnham College, Cambridge

Jean Floud was an academic and leading educational sociologist who demonstrated the power of class in shaping educational achievement and in so doing aided the intellectual agenda for the abolition of the grammar school system. Something of a trailblazer for women in a male-dominated arena, she went on to become only the second female Fellow of Nuffield College, Oxford, as well as Principal of Newnham College, Cambridge, the university's only all-female college; she helped modernise both institutions.

Born in Westcliff-on-Sea in 1915 and brought up at the height of the suffragette movement, Jean Esther MacDonald was not so much a product of her environment as inspired and motivated by the era she lived in. Her later academic work would fundamentally be a reflection on her childhood experiences and the barriers she overcame. Her father was a cobbler and footwear salesman of Scottish antecedents, her mother was a shop assistant who suffered from bouts of ill-health. In 1927 the family moved to Stoke Newington in north London, where Jean won a free place at the local girls' grammar school.

Initially she was not particularly academic, but she was inspired by her teacher at evening classes, and she was admitted to the London School of Economics to read sociology under Karl Mannheim, David Glass and Morris Ginsberg, graduating as a Hobhouse Prize winner in 1936. There she met Peter Floud, an Oxford graduate from an upper-class family and an alien social background; Jean found herself mixing in higher echelons. The couple joined the Communist Party and married two years later, having three children.

During the war, her husband began a curatorship at the Victoria and Albert Museum and in 1940 Floud became Oxford's assistant director of education. There she gained a deep knowledge of educational administration and this, combined with her sociology training, informed her study of social mobility. Returning to the LSE as a lecturer in 1947, she also taught at London University's Institute of Education (1947-62).

Gradually Floud began to define the sociology of education as a specialism within the social sciences, and collaborating with a former student, AH Halsey, and FM Martin, produced Social Class and Educational Opportunity in 1956. Based on research over an eight-year period in an industrial and a rural area, they set out to measure the effectiveness of the 11-plus selection process in boys' grammar schools.

The book, which came to be regarded as a seminal work, demonstrated how much influence class had on educational attainment in English society and exposed the limitations of the supposed social mobility which maintained secondary schooling was supposed to have brought. Floud argued that the educability of children "is determined by the subtle interaction of the social influences of home and school". Education, Economy, and Society: A Reader in the Sociology of Education (1961, with Halsey and C Arnold Anderson) followed, which established Floud and her discipline.

Floud's world was thrown in to turmoil with the death of her husband from a brain tumour in 1960. Two years later she and her children, all of school age, moved to Oxford, where she had become only the second woman, after Dame Margery Perham, to be awarded a full fellowship at Nuffield College.

Here she became increasingly interested in academic administration, leading to her appointment as a member of the Franks Commission of Inquiry into the reform of Oxford University (1964-66), which removed the last vestiges of power from Oxford University's Convocation, other than regarding the elections of the University's Chancellor and Professor of Poetry. She was recruited to a number of other committee positions, though privately acknowledging that some of the appointments were offered as merely "window dressing".

While at Oxford, Floud became close friends with the social and political theorist and philosopher Isaiah Berlin, the legal philosopher Herbert Hart and the economist Ian Little. In 1971 she was elected Principal of Newnham College, Cambridge, a post she held until her retirement in 1983, whereupon she returned to Oxford. While in Cambridge she became active in university administration, serving as chairman of the Board of Graduate Studies and of the Social and Political Sciences Committee, and as a Syndic of the University Press. She also served on the Syndicate of the Fitzwilliam Museum, becoming its Chairman.

Newnham College benefited from the raised academic and political profile Floud brought. In addition, the Principal's Lodge was transformed into a welcoming space; her parties for teachers and students alike became legendary. She was also unusual among college heads in overseeing and helping undergraduates, though she was never good at confronting those colleagues whose performance and commitment were below par.

Away from academia, Floud was involved with the Howard League for Penal Reform in the late 1970s, as chair of a working party reviewing the law relating to dangerous offenders, which led to the publication, with Warren Young, of Dangerousness and Criminal Justice (1981). They advocated preventive sentencing based on past criminal records and clinical assessments. She was appointed CBE in 1976 but declined the offer of a life peerage from James Callaghan's Labour government.

In retirement Floud continued to write, lecture and travel, but following the death of her son Andrew in a plane crash in 1982 she devoted much of her time to her family and friends.

Martin Childs

Jean Esther Floud, sociologist; born Westcliff-On-Sea, Essex 3 November 1915; CBE 1976; married 1960 Peter Floud (died 1960; two daughters, and one son deceased); died Oxford 28 March 2013.

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