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Floud [née McDonald], Jean Estherfree

  • Stephen J. Ball

Jean Esther Floud (1915–2013)

by Christopher Pemberton, 1983

© courtesy the Artist's Estate / The Principal and Fellows, Newnham College, Cambridge

Floud [née McDonald], Jean Esther (1915–2013), sociologist, was born on 3 November 1915 at 496 London Road, Westcliff on Sea, Essex, the only daughter of Ernest Walter McDonald, cobbler and shoe salesman, and his wife, Annie Louisa, née Watson. She attended local primary and secondary schools, and when her family moved to Stoke Newington, in 1927 she a free place at North Hackney Central School for Girls, a grammar school. She left before completing her studies but later attended evening classes and was admitted to the London School of Economics (LSE) to read sociology under Karl Mannheim, David Glass, Thomas Humphrey Marshall, Morris Ginsberg, and Edward Shils. She graduated in 1936 as a Hobhouse prize winner. While at the LSE she met Peter Castle Floud (1911–1960), elder son of the diplomat Sir Francis Floud and brother of the Labour politician Bernard Floud, and like him joined the Communist Party. They were married at Holborn register office on 2 April 1938. By that time Peter Floud was an assistant keeper at the Victoria and Albert Museum, and he went on to become keeper of the circulation department there. They had three children, Andrew (b. 1948), who died in a plane crash in 1982, Frances (b. 1952), and Esther (b. 1955).

In 1940 Jean Floud became Oxford's assistant director of education before returning to the LSE as an assistant lecturer in 1947. She also taught at the Institute of Education, University of London (1953–62), where she was senior lecturer in the sociology of education, replacing W. O. Lester-Smith. Her experiences at school and as an education administrator combined with her training as a sociologist informed her seminal study of education and social mobility. Through her research work at the LSE, in collaboration with A. H. Halsey, a former student, and F. M. Martin, she played a key role in establishing the form and definition of the sociology of education as a research specialism within the social sciences. Most importantly, with Halsey and Martin she conducted an eight-year study of the effectiveness of the eleven-plus selection process in boys' grammar schools, in two contrasting locations—Middlesbrough and south-west Hertfordshire. The research was published in book form in 1956 as Social Class and Educational Opportunity, a classic work, in the British political arithmetic tradition. This built upon previous research at the LSE, in particular Hilde Himmelweit's study of the impact of tripartitism (1954) and David Glass's overarching research on social mobility in post-war Britain. Social Class and Educational Opportunity demonstrated the subtle and complex relationships between educational attainment and social class background factors, and thus the limits to social mobility, and it challenged the supposed 'culture blindness' of the eleven-plus examination. It also confirmed the post-war domination of grammar school entry by children from middle-class backgrounds and the increasing difficulty faced by working-class boys seeking places in these schools.

It might be said that the focus of the study was not unrelated to Floud's own educational experience of school. The research changed the terms of the debate around educational selection, although Floud herself did not overtly support comprehensive education. She said of her work at the LSE, in giving the Charles Gittins memorial lecture at the University of Swansea in 1977, that 'we saw ourselves as, first and foremost, students of social structure, not as advocates of social aims in education' (Functions, Purposes and Powers in Education, 1978, 9). She was never particularly interested in the politics of education, despite her local government experience, and turned down a life peerage offered to her by James Callaghan. She published a series of articles based on the eleven-plus study and in 1961 edited, with A. H. Halsey and C. A. Anderson, Education, Economy, and Society: a Reader in the Sociology of Education, which became the standard reference and defining text for the field. She later edited a book series, Themes and Issues in Modern Sociology, with John Goldthorpe.

In 1960 Peter Floud died of a brain tumour and in 1962, with three school-age children, Jean Floud moved to Oxford to become only the second woman to be awarded a full fellowship at Nuffield College. She gave up empirical sociology at this point. At Oxford she became close friends with Herbert Hart, Isaiah Berlin, and the economist Ian Little, and later wrote a book on the sociology of law, which remained unpublished. She was a regular book reviewer for a variety of social science journals throughout her university career.

While at Oxford Floud became increasingly interested in academic administration and was appointed as a member of the Franks commission of inquiry into the reform of the university (1964–6), which removed the last vestiges of power from Oxford University's convocation. She was subsequently appointed to the University Grants Committee (1969–74) and the Social Science Research Council (1970–73). Although a very active and effective member of these influential bodies she reportedly saw herself in the role of the token woman. Robert Skidelsky described her career as 'a triumph of brains, charm and presence over class and gender prejudice' (The Guardian, 5 April 2013).

In 1971 Floud was elected principal of Newnham College, Cambridge, a post she held until her retirement in 1983. At Cambridge she was again 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. In the late 1970s she became involved with the Howard League for Penal Reform and in 1981 she published a report with Warren Young entitled Dangerousness and Criminal Justice, which arose from her chairmanship of a Howard League for Penal Reform working party reviewing the law on dangerous offenders. She published a series of related papers on crime and criminal justice (in 1975, 1982, and 1983). The report advocated preventive sentencing based on criminal records and clinical assessments.

Floud was made a CBE in 1976 and an honorary fellow of Nuffield College in 1983, of Newnham College the same year, and of Darwin College, Cambridge, in 1986. She received honorary degrees from Leeds, City, and London universities (in 1973, 1978, and 2003 respectively). She died on 28 March 2013, at Isis House care and retirement centre, Cornwallis Road, Oxford, of old age and dementia, and was survived by her two daughters.


  • The Guardian (5 April 2013)
  • The Times (8 April 2013)
  • Oxford Times (11 April 2013)
  • Daily Telegraph (1 May 2013)
  • The Independent (16 May 2013)
  • WW (2013)
  • personal knowledge (2017)
  • private information (2017)
  • b. cert.
  • m. cert.
  • d. cert.


  • C. Pemberton, oils, 1983, Newnham College, Cambridge [see illus.]
  • obituary photographs