Simon, Brian (19152002), educationist and historian, was born on 26 March 1915 at Moorlands, Fog Lane, Didsbury, Manchester, the younger son and second of the three children of , engineer and businessman, and his wife, Shena Dorothy, née Potter (18831972) [see ], herself a political activist and educationist. His grandfather had founded two industrial companies, Henry Simon Ltd and Simon Carves Ltd, generating enough income to enable his son (Simon's father) to engage first in local politics in Manchester, where he became lord mayor (19212) and campaigned tirelessly for civic reform, and then in national politics, serving as Liberal MP for Withington in 19234 and 192931. He was briefly parliamentary secretary to the minister of health in Ramsay Macdonald's national government, and was involved in the foundation of the New Statesman as well as the Association for Education in Citizenship. The family home became one of the foci of Manchester Liberalism, and C. P. Scott was a regular visitor. Ernest Simon wrote numerous books, campaigning particularly for a smokeless city and better housing. Shena Simon was equally involved in public affairs, chairing the Manchester education committee, serving on the board of education's consultative committee, and being a lifelong friend and political ally of R. H. Tawney. Thus Simon was born into a home immersed in public affairs and in political activism.
Simon's schooling, which took him to Gresham's School in Norfolk and then for two terms to Schule Schloss Salem (where the headmaster, Kurt Hahn, was arrested by the Nazis shortly after Simon's arrival), sparked an enduring interest in progressive education at the same time as confirming his reservations about élite education, despite Gresham's being one of the more radical public schools. As an undergraduate at Trinity College, Cambridge (19347), he became a leading light of the University Education Society, inviting well-known radical thinkers to lecture. In 1935 he was recruited to the Communist Party. His involvement in the student Marxist Study Group led to an undying commitment to university reform and also to impatience that Cambridge was isolated from the National Union of Students (NUS) and wider social trends. A growing determination to teach in and become involved with the state school system led him on graduation to the University of London's Institute of Education, to train as a teacher. During the Easter vacation, having attached himself to a group of overseas fellows at the institute, Simon travelled to Paris with Reinhold Schairer, only to find himself party to endless phone calls co-ordinating the opposition to Hitler immediately before the Anschluss. Also in 1938, he was appointed to the newly formed Labour Party education advisory committee, where he worked tirelessly as Barbara Drake's assistant secretary. He was also elected NUS secretary at the Institute of Education and this led to its presidency in 1939. In this connection he travelled widely to international student conferences, one trip being with Guy Burgess to Moscow shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War. The educational research he undertook during this phase of his life resulted in A Student's View of the Universities (1943).
On 12 February 1941 Simon married Joan Peel (b. 1915/16), then assistant editor of the Times Educational Supplement. She was the daughter of Home Peel, a civil servant in the India Office. They had two sons, Alan (b. 1943) and Martin (b. 1944). At the time of their marriage Simon was a lance-corporal in the Dorsetshire regiment; he later transferred to the Royal Corps of Signals. Throughout the war Joan kept him in touch with educational politics, although his attachment to the phantom (general headquarters liaison) regiment took him to numerous destinations and provoked a most unlikely lifelong friendship with David Niven, later a film star. On demobilization Simon taught in Manchester, first in the elementary sector, then at Varna Street secondary modern school, and finally for three years at Salford grammar school, where he was the producer of a school play which gave the young Albert Finney his first experience of the stage.
In the autumn of 1950 Brian Simon moved to a lectureship at the University of Leicester, where he stayed for thirty years, being promoted reader in 1964 and professor in 1966. This was the period when he emerged as a major figure in the politics of education, respected both for his advocacy of comprehensive schooling and for his writings on the history and politics of education.
Simon's first major incursion into print at Leicester was the appearance in 1953 of Intelligence Testing and the Comprehensive School, one of the seminal texts which dealt a death blow to the fixed intelligence lobby and placed the issue of selection at eleven at the heart of educational politics for years to come. It also marked the start of a long-term critique of some of the orthodoxies of educational psychology, which Simon saw as being too redolent of a class-based society and insufficiently open to thinking from mainland Europe, particularly Russia. Two years later The Common Secondary School extended the argument. The campaign for an end to selection at eleven was advanced through Simon's establishment in 1958 of the journal Forum in association with other radical thinkers in Leicester, among them Robin Pedley and Stuart Mason. In 1970 his collaboration with Caroline Benn resulted in Halfway There, which he considered his most influential work. This book took the argument about comprehensive education one step further through its critique of streaming, and provided an invaluable survey of the extent and nature of comprehensivization at that time.
At the same time that he was becoming one of the leaders of the campaign for a major restructuring of the education system, Simon was also establishing a reputation as a historian. In 1960 he published Studies in the History of Education, 17801870, the first of four major volumes on the history of education in Britain, arguing that the system which developed during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was the product not of enlightened philanthropy, as contemporary historians claimed, but of a class-ridden society in which those in positions of power and influence were unprepared to offer more than tokens of what schooling might be in order to pre-empt claims for a more fully inclusive system. In this way his academic writings underpinned his political activism and drew him to the view (which he never deserted) that historical insight was the necessary prerequisite of political action. In the process he also established that the study of the history of education was about much more than schools and colleges, showing the significance and centrality of pamphleteering as well as of informal education during the period that the school system took shape.
In 1967 Simon became involved in plans to establish a History of Education Society and was one of the organizers of its first conference in Liverpool. He was its president from 1972 until 1975 and remained central to the society's work long after then. It was largely his initiative to establish in 1979 the International Standing Conference for the History of Education, which he saw as a vehicle to bring scholars from eastern and western Europe together on a regular basis. Subsequently the range of this organization became worldwide and its scope widened, and it endured as a major monument to his foresight. His historical interests led him to complete his monumental four-volume account of schooling in Britain since the industrial revolution with further volumes in 1965, 1974, and 1991, and to widen his interests to include the public schools as well as adult and progressive education. This reflected his determination to establish the long view in historical writings about education, and the significance of all aspects of schooling.
A third strand of Simon's interests, which interwove with his advocacy of comprehensive education and his historical interests throughout his career, was a determination to develop and promote international links, particularly between the eastern and western bloc nations. In 1955 he accepted an invitation from the Russian Academy of Sciences to spend a month in Moscow (which was followed by a number of further visits to the Soviet Union). This deepened his interest in the work of Alexander Luria and Lev Semionovich Vygotsky and led to him becoming one of the leaders of the movement to translate the work of Russian thinkers into English: in this it is not too fanciful to claim that Simon was central to the redirection of educational psychology in Britain and America during the 1960s and 1970s.
Simon retired as professor of education at Leicester in 1980, becoming emeritus professor. Increasingly, as the new right took control of the political agenda in education during the 1980s and 1990s, he was drawn towards directly political writing in order to offer an alternative vision. Outraged at the peremptory nature of the process by which the 1988 Education Act was pushed through parliament, he wrote Bending the Rules in six weeks as an indictment of what the government was up to. This was but one of several influential commentaries on the politics of education during this period. He published an autobiography, A Life in Education, in 1998, and two works of family history, In Search of a Grandfather: Henry Simon (1997) and Henry Simon's Children (1999). He died of lung cancer at his home, 11 Pendene Road, Leicester, on 17 January 2002, and was survived by his wife and their two sons.
A. Rattansi and D. Reeder, eds., Rethinking radical education: essays in honour of Brian Simon (1992) · B. Simon, A life in education (1998) · The Guardian (22 Jan 2002) · Times Educational Supplement (25 Jan 2002) · Morning Star (29 Jan 2002) · G. McCulloch, Brian Simon, 19152002, Research Intelligence, 79 (March 2002), 3031 · History of Education Society Bulletin, 69 (2002), 12 · D. Reeder, Brian Simon, a tribute, History of Education, 31/4 (2002), 30710 · R. Lowe, Brian Simon, History Workshop Journal, 56 (autumn 2003), 298300 · WW (2002) · Burke, Peerage · personal knowledge (2006) · private information (2006) · b. cert. · m. cert. · d. cert.
History of Education Society, interview
N. Chadwick, photograph, repro. in The Guardian (22 Jan 2002)
Wealth at death
£738,891: probate, 12 April 2002, CGPLA Eng. & Wales