You don’t have to be a Tory to be a traditionalist in education

A rigorous and traditional approach to education would do more for social justice than has been achieved in four decades of 'progressive', child-centred schooling.

Matthew Hunter
7 January 2013

Critics of the current education reforms in Britain frequently accuse Gove of ‘politicising’ education, or seeking to fulfil an ‘ideological’ agenda. Such an accusation is misguided, as the supposedly impartial middle ground which these critics inhabit is itself deeply ideological. We only do not recognise it as such because it has become the status quo.

As a history teacher at an inner-city state secondary school, I have come to realise that many of the foibles of contemporary state education have their origins in a movement known as ‘progressive’ education. During the 1960s, there was a tremendous (and now largely forgotten) culture war fought in British classrooms between ‘progressives’ and ‘traditionalists’. There were many facets to the progressive educator’s creed: they believed that skills were more important than knowledge; teaching must be child-centred; content must be made relevant; group work was more effective than teacher talk; and schools should abandon their emphasis on discipline, hierarchy and formal routines. Traditionalists meanwhile carried on teaching as they had always taught: from the front, expecting well-behaved classrooms, and with an emphasis on subject content.

The pioneer of progressive education in Britain was A. S. Neill, the founder of a radical independent school in Suffolk called Summerhill. Neill’s education manifesto, Summerhill, was first published in 1962 and ran to five editions selling over two million copies. In it he wrote: “We set out to make a school in which we should allow children freedom to be themselves. In order to do this, we had to renounce all discipline, all direction, all suggestion, all moral training, all religious instruction... My view is that a child is innately wise and realistic. If left to himself without adult suggestion of any kind, he will develop as far as he is capable of developing.”

A whole generation of idealistic, middle class teachers who trained during the 1960s and 1970s fell under the spell of such rhetoric. Such developments did not go unnoticed. One of the most prominent public figures to speak out against the spread of progressive education was the Labour Prime Minister Jim Callaghan. Known as ‘PC Jim’ for his Old Labour social conservatism, Callaghan was shocked by what was happening to schools, usually at the hands of supporters of his party. In his famous Ruskin speech of 1976, he attacked what he dubbed “new informal methods of teaching”. When interviewed later in life, Callaghan recalled “I was concerned with what was being said to me in the constituency about literacy and numeracy… Some parents were expressing disquiet as to whether their children were being taught or not, because of the child-centred approach.”

Sadly, the few voices on the left who could see sense had little effect on the nation’s classrooms. Progressive teachers came to dominate the commanding heights of our education institutions, and their ideas became the received wisdom on what constitutes ‘good practice’ in schools. Today, a trainee teacher who expresses a preference for rigour, discipline and routine in schools, will be treated as an eccentric at best, but more likely a child-hater who has made a deeply misguided career choice.

It would be nice to be able to report that the effervescence in progressive thinking in our schools has led to an ongoing improvement in pupil performance. Sadly, this is not the case. For decades, our state schools have been synonymous with ill discipline and unruliness. This October, the GMTV host Fiona Phillips returned to the comprehensive school she attended in the 1970s to reopen it as an Academy, and recalled her less than lovely schooldays: "It was a school rampant with hormones and no discipline… I can remember being in classes throwing furniture around. We locked a fashion teacher in a cupboard and threw one over a bush, and that was normal behaviour.”

For millions of British people, such an account will be grimly familiar. According to the National Union of Teachers, 92 percent of teachers believe that pupil behaviour has worsened over the course of their career, and 79 percent claimed they were unable to teach effectively because of poor behaviour. Last year, 44 teachers were hospitalised with severe injuries from pupil attacks – the highest figure in five years. Is it any wonder that graduates still list the reputation of British schools for poor behaviour as the main reason they would not become teachers?

The picture for pupil attainment is no rosier. Whilst it would be wrong to claim that before the 1960s Britain enjoyed a golden age of state education, neither has there been any measureable improvement since then. The most complete study yet into the long-term educational outcomes of British pupils has shown that functional illiteracy has remained stubbornly consistent at around 17 percent from 1948 up until today. In terms of numeracy, there has been no perceivable improvement, and in reading and writing there has been only a very slight improvement over the last two decades. Bearing in mind that the last half-century has seen a four-fold increase in real terms of state spending on education, this state of affairs is appalling.

It is high time that progressive education be held to account for the terrible track record of British state schools. If they stand any hope of improving, our state schools must make a concerted shift towards more traditional modes of education: rigour, firm discipline and challenging subject content. For those who are dubious of how this would look, they need look no further than Britain’s world renowned independent schools. As generally conservative institutions, they have been comparatively immune to the developments of progressive education. As a result they are in rude health.

Sadly, those who recommend a return to more traditional modes of education are frequently shot down as ‘reactionaries’. To pick just one example, a writer for the Times Education Supplement recently castigated the good work being done by the current head of OFSTED to improve school discipline as appealing “to a primal and emotional urge, to the ignorant, unenlighted and ugliest right-wing traditions.” At the school where I teach, the head will habitually respond to staff calls for firmer discipline with distasteful allusions to Nazism.

The calamitous effects of progressive education should appal those on the left who support social justice. Instead, the modern marriage of left wing politics with social liberalism means that the left instinctively support these practices. They should not. Anyone who wants to see normal British people offered the same chance of success as those who are sent to private schools should support a turn towards more traditional notions of schooling.

The American educationalist E. D. Hirsch perhaps put this position best when he wrote: “I would label myself a political liberal and an educational conservative, or perhaps more accurately, an educational pragmatist. Political liberals really ought to oppose progressive educational ideas because they have led to practical failure and greater social inequity.”


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