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Melissa Benn: Is politics and policy too toxic for Dewey?

UK political developments over the last twenty years have seen a growing acceptance of the idea of comprehensive education. But that acceptance of non-selective schools is based on a profound, hostile rejection of progressive ideas.

Melissa Benn
27 February 2017
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This is the transcript of a talk delivered by Melissa Benn at the “John Dewey’s “Democracy and Education” 100 Years On” conference at the University of Cambridge, 2016.

I am delighted to be here.

I feel a little bit apprehensive, because you are an audience of academics and thinkers. Although I’ve read Dewey – not as much as former Conservative politicians obviously! – I don’t consider myself an expert, but I was surprised at the panel title actually, because I kept looking at it, and it says: “is Dewey too toxic for policy?”. And I thought, no this is the wrong way around. It’s “is politics and policy too toxic for Dewey?”. And that basically is my argument today.

I want to do two things. I really come to continue my “what I’m not” and to say “what I am”. I really come as a writer and campaigner on education. A lot of what I’m going to say today follows on from my observations of schools and the current political climate.

The broad headline of what I want to say is that the policy and political developments of the last twenty years in education have seen on the one hand a growing acceptance, in some way, of the idea of the common school, which we might also call comprehensive education. But that very acceptance of non-selective schools is based on a profound and hostile rejection of progressive ideas of which Dewey is the father and master quite clearly. I also want to argue, being a hopeful sort, that there has always been resistance to that return to an arid and politically motivated traditionalism, and I also see resistance growing now in schools, because there is so much that you can impose from the top both politically and in terms of the delivery of an arid programme of learning, and I think that there is a whole new generation of educators and parents and no doubt students who say, no, enough, we want something else.

Let me first of all talk about the idea of the common school and the Deweyan phrase, equal opportunity no separation into privileged subjects, or subject class. Well in one way, if we look at the English system, it is still very hierarchical with the 7% private sector and what not, but something has shifted in our society, and I think it is important to recognise it. Comprehensive education very broadly was an idea, well it wasn’t just an idea of the progressive left, but it was always associated with that. Since 2007, a section of the Conservative party and the political right have come round to the idea of non-selective education and that we would call the Gove-ians, I suppose. I was speaking at a rally last week to oppose Theresa May’s plans to reintroduce grammars and it was really interesting. It was the first time I’ve been in a room with a group of people mainly under 30 who were passionate about comprehensive education, but it is a very different view of comprehensive education.

In general terms this is how I see the Gove-ian, and I call it Gove-ian because Michael Gove is a really important figure in it all, who shaped the anti-progressive discourse and led it really. At the heart of this idea, it’s not about process, or meaning, or enjoyment, but about outcome. So it’s very results obsessed, obsessed with the university destination. It’s obviously a very traditional model with a traditional curriculum based on the grammar/independent school model. Uniform and discipline. It’s not egalitarian but about social mobility, so helping individuals to rise. I think a new story has entered our culture which was once a grammar school story, which was the individual went to a grammar school and went to Oxbridge and competed with the independent sector. We now have that same story but coming from a broader part of the state sector and that is considered the great success story of the academy and free school model. It is not about the present, this model, it’s about the past in the sense of inheriting a tradition and it’s about the future in the sense of moving out of your communities and your families and moving to somewhere better. It is a completely different view of the school which has no inherent community or social function but is more like a business placed in a particular area. There is very little connection between the child’s experience and the curriculum and the learning at hand.

So politically, how has this idea developed? Well, it’s not only Gove, I think Andrew Adonis the Labour Education Minister was part of it. It was built on the rejection of the ‘blob’. The ‘blob’ is the name of the new right educators for what they see as an entire history which would go right back to Dewey. I call the modern people the ‘blab’ because I think if I am going to be insulted…

It is a model based on the whole-sale rejection of progressive ideas. I think the really important thing is that they are grossly mischaracterised. Progressive education is represented as child-centred, the teacher having no role, poor discipline, and chaos. There are the key people promoting it, and I think you must take seriously how many people out there in the public, amongst parents, and in the political discourse, the ideas you are talking about today are profoundly misunderstood, misrepresented, and disliked. There is a political job here to get across the importance and the richness of the Dewey tradition.

There are two important parts of this anti-progressive politics. One is Michael Gove himself; read the speech he gave in January 2013 to the Social Market Foundation in which he set out his ideas of how progressive education had ruined our education system and why traditionalism is the answer. It’s a terribly clever speech and it deploys Gramsci in his favour, it seems the worst thing he could come up with was a school in Italy under Mussolini’s rein drawing on the ideas of Rousseau, who was the bad boy before Dewey, but when you realise the worst thing he can come up with is in another country in another era it shows that he is skating on thin ice. There he puts forward the idea that the left, connected with the progressive Dewey tradition, have let down the working class, so it’s got another angle to it.

John Dewey. Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain.

John Dewey. Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain.There is also a group of young educators who are rejecting everything that you stand for and this conference stands for. There is a very interesting young woman called Daisy Christodoulou who wrote a book called Seven Myths About Education. In essence, she argues that children need knowledge – taking a Hirschian idea – in order to question the world. Then there is a book by Robert Peal called Progressively Worse: the Burden of Bad Ideas in Education which the Daily Mail enjoyed publicising. I re-read that article again this morning, and it is very interesting, it talks about his beginning in a Birmingham comprehensive, how it was chaos and nobody wanted to learn and the teachers were unable to control the class, and he then said, where do we find the root of this problem? Now I could give many roots of a problem in a Birmingham comprehensive: inequality, teachers overloaded, lack of resources, and so on. He says no, you need to go back to A. S. Neill and Summerhill, because that’s where it all went wrong. It’s an interesting point that those earlier Conservative politicians, I think they knew about Dewey and they drew on Dewey. I think this later generation don’t know so much about Dewey and they’re working second-hand. Having said that, I looked through all my education books over the last few days, about 150, and Dewey is in pretty much every single index. He’s very important but I think he is diluted for this new generation of educators.

Where has this led in policy terms?

I think it has led to a toxic mix of authoritarianism and deregulation. We have a narrower curriculum in both secondary and primary. There is now this absolute commitment to facts, the mastery of the facts, teachers are there to deliver. We have the e-bac which is an accountability measure which says only certain traditional subjects count. We have literally the dearth and the death of creative subjects in many schools. At the Local Schools Network, we recently ran an assessment of how many schools were dropping design and technology and art because they were trying to meet the accountability measures and it was 25% or 30% which is very depressing. There is a clear distinguishing between subjects that count and those of lesser value. You’ve got the history, geography, Latin, and languages considered to be really important, and then you’ve got arts, music, dance and drama less important, and then the vocational which has just fallen off the edge. On the other hand, teachers are increasingly unqualified – now 20% of teachers go in without any qualification, and there is no sense as far as I can tell in a lot of the teacher training of teachers needing to have subject knowledge, coming to teaching with a lot of preparation.

Most of the young teachers I know go into the classroom after a few weeks and then there is very little sense officially of teachers learning to learn and the things Dewey talks about – learning to learn and loving to learn to learn. The idea that a really good teacher is a really good learner is completely absent from this discourse. What you find is that groups of young teachers are now setting up their own kind of professional development. There is something called Northern Rocks which is a very interesting group of teachers in the North.

The effects of this toxic mix of authoritarianism and anti-progressivism and deregulation are first of all leaving a generation of children behind. This year, 47% of children at primary school who did their SATs, got a letter home saying, you have not reached the expected standard. So the education secretary says we are making schools more rigorous and about half of our children are feeling a failure. There is a deification but dulling of the academic, and a demotion and disparaging of practical learning and it is a false divide anyway. Even for those who succeed, there is so much conformity, mark-chasing. I hear young people say, I am not going to do that course because I am not sure I will get a 2:1 and a first. The A-star culture in schools shrinks risk and experiment, enjoyment and discovery for everyone involved. Teachers are robbed of their autonomy which is why there is such a recruitment problem.

The third thing I want to talk about is the relationship between school and society and here I want to contrast the academy model with a sort of older idea of what the common school or comprehensive would be. Academies are a complicated question, there are some good ones and some that are mediocre, and academy chains are a real problem in our system but a really good academy stands in a different relationship to its community than the comprehensive. Its message to parents is: ‘send your child here and we will help them to move on and out of the world you are in. Send your child here and we will get them good results, send your child here and they will be disciplined’. Compare that to the comprehensive or the Deweyan idea of a school and the heart of it is community. Children bring their knowledge of family and life to the curriculum; parents are involved in the governing of a school and so on. In the modern version of the school it is quite corporate – corporate sponsor, private money – and it is the object of philanthropic interest. And whatever you think of that, it is a completely different idea of the role of the school.

Let me finish by talking about resistance. I think there is resistance to all of this and I think there always has been. I am on the board of Forum, a magazine exploring comprehensive education; Forum has always been a magazine and a journal that looks at education in a completely different way. When the Chair, Michael Armstrong, recently died, just for me to re-read what his idea of education was about – it was so completely antithetical to everything that is going on. There are projects like Learning Without Limits which is also represented here, there are also individual figures more in the mainstream like Sir Kenneth Robinson who is expressing the need for creativity. Interestingly enough, the independent school has taken a new role in the progressive-traditional false dichotomy because independent schools have the resources and confidence to keep creative subjects and recognise the importance of them. To contrast their expanding into emotional literacy and experimentation and the arts, and the shrinkage and constraints of the state school is quite depressing.

And there is a new generation of confident, rebellious parents on Twitter. I read yesterday a parent saying they were taking their child out of a highly successful school where they get 95% A-C because they cut music, art, and drama, and I’m sending them to a so-called failing school because there they can get the education that I think is important.

And then the final point is: schools themselves. I would define two types of school in the current environment that are bucking the trend and it involves confident schools and constrained schools. There are confident schools within the state system that are trying to do things differently. One of them is the traditional maintained local comprehensive that is carrying on doing what it always did, has been completely ignored by policy makers, derided in many cases, but has just kept being a community school with a broad and balanced curriculum and doing their best within the constraints. Then there is the new body of thinkers: Highbury Grove in London is a good example, where they are trying to bridge the gap between progressive and traditional schooling. They are experimenting with oracy. Oracy is a new thing within this kind of school; it puts the spoken word at the heart of everything students do from the first day they go to school. It seems to be quite an impressive experiment. It is creating an environment that all of us I think would find interesting.

Finally there are the constrained schools, I’ve been asked to a lot of schools in the country, schools which would probably be considered secondary moderns. Schools that do not attract many academic learners and really they have the most Deweyan principles. The only schools that have kitchens where you can learn to cook, places to learn about mechanics, practical and enjoyment of learning. I saw 11 and 12 year olds standing up and talking for about 20 minutes about their learning and developing confidence and enjoying the process. So I think, don’t lose hope, those ideas are still there and we just need to encourage them more.

openDemocracy is partnering with the World Forum for Democracy, exploring the relationship between education and democracy. Read more here.

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