Educational Thinkers’ Hall of Fame – Richard Henry Tawney

This is a guest blog by Ruth Spellman, the WEA’s General Secretary

Ruthe Spellman, WEA General Secretary

My vote for educational influencers would probably go to RH Tawney for all the reasons why I applied to become General Secretary of the WEA, and why I have had a lifetime’s commitment to improving access to learning.One of my favourite quotes from Tawney;“The purpose of the association is to provide for men and women who want to take their bearings on the world, opportunities of co-operative study, in congenial company, with a leader who knows enough of his business to be not only a leader but a fellow student.”

The quote has huge resonance today as more and more of our language and discourse is dominated by the need to re-examine short term returns, short term profits, short term gratification for the consumer, short term windfalls and bonuses.  Education (as Tawney reminds us) is a longer term investment enabling us to participate in and benefit from the huge technological advances of the 20 century.  To use our inventiveness and creativity and channel our energy into positive outcomes for our society as well as our economy.  Reading the testimony of men and women who have been students, tutors and volunteers for the WEA over 100 years I am forced to agree with Mary Turner (1921 -1989) who was a hugely prolific advocate of the WEA in the North West she said “In terms of interest on investment, the WEA does a lot better that the stock market”

Richard Henry Tawney, former President of the WEA

The Wikipedia entry on Tawney is at and there’s more information at

“Fairness and the changing fortunes of people in Britain”

I was in London overnight between work commitments on 27 June so went to the 2012 Beveridge Lecture at the Royal Statistical Society.  Prof. Danny Dorling spoke to a full house on the subject of “Fairness and the changing fortunes of people in Britain.”

Dorling has been researching and writing on inequality for many years. Inevitably there were strong parallels in this lecture with Richard Wilkinson and Kate Picket’s findings in their book The Spirit Level – which was the focus of Prof. Wilkinson’s keynote lecture at the WEA’s Biennial Conference in October 2011. Various references to the contrasts in wealth between 99% of the population and the richest 1% reinforced the message behind the Occupy movement and Dorling’s graphs showed a wide range of inequality even within the wealthiest 1% of people in Britain.

He gave examples of educational segregation and geographical inequality as well as statistics on income inequality. Two statements about education made an impression.

“A majority of employers offering the best paid graduate jobs target an average of only 19 universities. The students who attend those 19 universities disproportionately spent their childhoods in the south of England.”

“Approximately 7% of children attend private schools. 7% are also thought to have had fathers in prison during their childhood.”

Dorling uses a very effective ‘cartogram’ technique, producing maps that distort the shape of geographic regions so that their area represents an aspect of data. His cartograms of the UK were powerful illustrations of comparative population decline in northern Britain and growth in London and the south. This was all the more significant given current proposals for differential rates for public sector salaries and for state benefits in different regions. Such developments would be likely to accelerate the population shift and widen the disparity between regional economies and prosperity.

Apart from the unfairness of paying variable salaries on the basis of geography rather than workloads, regional variations in employment conditions will result in perverse incentives for doctors and teachers to move away from the areas where improvements in health and education are needed most urgently.

Reminding us that the lecture was in honour of William Beveridge, Dorling gave us some background information about the economist and social reformer whose 1942 report Social Insurance and Allied Services, better known as the Beveridge Report, paved the way for the British welfare state. A bleak analysis of our current situation was inevitable.

Dorling also referred to Richard Tawney, former President of the WEA and Beveridge’s brother-in-law. Tawney made an enduring contribution to the WEA and to society. His work and commitment to equality is still highly respected 50 years after his death.

It was very sobering that Danny Dorling ‘s conclusion on the basis of statistical analysis was that, “Britain has become an increasingly unequal society since 1979.”

See: for more information on Danny Dorling.

See: for more information about the Spirit Level.