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Olive Banks: Sociologist

John Simkin

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Simon Szreter

Tuesday December 12, 2006

The Guardian


In 1955 Olive Banks, subsequently a professor of sociology at Leicester University (1973-82), published what became a classic, pioneering work in historical sociology. Parity and Prestige in English Secondary Education, was a rigorous critique of the postwar tripartite secondary education system created by the 1944 Butler Act, which divided state education between grammar, secondary modern and technical schools.

Banks, who has died aged 83, exposed the sloppy thinking behind the idea that educationists and government were simply there to supply the three kinds of schools and teachers required, and that those schools and pupils would then prosper depending on the quality of their staff. She argued that the nation's secondary education had to be understood through its relationship with the labour market. This rewarded educational skills and qualifications according to a social hierarchy. Consequently, the creation of three kinds of maintained secondary school, supplying three kinds of education to serve three different sectors of this hierarchy, could not possibly result in schools of the three types enjoying parity of prestige. "If ... the prestige of a school derives from the social and economic status of the occupations for which it prepares, then equality of prestige is clearly impossible." Thus, the 1944 Butler Act was fated to deepen social divisions.

By the time Banks was awarded a personal chair at Leicester, she was a leading figure in the new field of the sociology of education. Indeed, she had published its first, highly successful textbook, The Sociology of Education, in 1968. But, as Banks's memoir (published in Women's History Review, 1999) makes plain, her rise in such a male-dominated sphere occurred in the face of prejudice. She was still the only female professor at Leicester when she took early retirement in 1982.

In rising to the top of her profession Banks was one of the few in her generation to have overcome gender and class barriers. Her father was a self-employed builder who had married his brother's widow after the first world war. From a home in which, she recalled, there were no books, she won a scholarship to Enfield grammar school. She always knew that, unlike most of her classmates, she would have to leave school at 16, as she did in 1939. Having attended wartime Workers Educational Association and Co-operative Society classes, her chance came with the 1945 Labour victory which opened up the possibility of university grants.

Thus in 1947, with her devoted partner Joe Banks (whom she had met in 1943 through the Enfield Co-operative youth group and married in 1944), she became a London School of Economics undergraduate. While still living at her mother's house, the couple went on to postgraduate research under the inspirational David Glass - and both became professors in sociology. Yet despite Parity and Prestige, it was not until 1959 that she was appointed to her post as a research lecturer at Liverpool.

The freedom of an established position enabled her to return to historical sociological research in the subject which she had wanted to pursue for her LSE doctorate, the history of British feminism. This resulted in her only major joint publication with Joe, Feminism and Family Planning (1964), which was almost alone in the field of archivally based, historical work on feminism when it was published.

In 1981 she published Faces of Feminism, an influential study of the US and Britain, and then came Becoming a Feminist: the Social Origins of "First Wave" Feminism (1987), The Politics of British Feminism 1918-1970 (1993) and the two-volume reference manual, The Biographical Dictionary of British Feminists 1800-1945 (1985). Although her methodology of collective biography and narrative is not fashionable, her research in the field was pioneering. She demonstrated that Victorian feminism was composed of many strands and that there were continuities between "first" and "second wave". It is her achievement that both of these are now commonplaces of historical knowledge.

With their unaffected warmth, Olive and Joe were much loved members of their departments at both Liverpool and Leicester and at the British Sociological Association. They were a devoted couple, but also great company and until Joe's death a year ago, they enjoyed a happy retirement in Buxton, sharing their passions for opera, the arts, gardens and the hills. They had no children.

Olive Banks, sociologist, born July 2 1923; died September 14 2006

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