This Sunday, there was an article in the papers that demonstrated two abiding truths about British education. The embarrassing failure of seven new, multi million pound schools in Knowsley offers yet more evidence that money is not the answer for improving schools, and ‘progressive’ teaching methods are a sure route to failure.
Knowsley in Merseyside is one of Britain’s most deprived boroughs. In an attempt to save the area from endemic poverty, £157 million was spent on seven spanking new schools. However, this project had the misfortune of falling under the sway of ‘progressive’ educational ideas. Three years after they were built, four of the schools have received critical Ofsted reports and one of them has only 500 pupils filling its 900 places.
In fact, these newly build institutions were not even schools, but ‘centres for learning’. Instead of being taught by teachers, lessons would be run by ‘progress leaders’. The project was billed as ‘ripping up the rulebook’, where classrooms would be ‘democratised’ spaces dubbed ‘homebases’ or ‘warehouses’.
For anyone involved in education, such language will be familiar. It represents a style of thinking about education which entered the mainstream in the 1960s and has been failing our pupils every since. By applying adult ideological precepts to the nurturing of our children, ‘progressive’ educational ideas spurn any teaching which could be construed as ‘oppressive’ or ‘hierarchical’. Instead, pupils are placed in charge of their own learning, and rigour is sacrificed for the sake of pupil ‘self-esteem’ and ‘creativity’.
Such thinking has embedded itself in our schools, and can be seen in all of the mantras familiar to a new teacher: let them learn in groups; don’t aim for a silent classroom; avoid any old-fashioned didacticism; be a facilitator, not a teacher. Needless to say, these ideas are a sure route to failure. Burlington Danes Academy in London is a useful counter-example showing how success can be achieved. This school promotes respect in the classroom, calm corridors, perfect uniform, and a total ban on mobile phones. The result? A leap from 31% of pupils gaining five or more good GCSEs in 2006, to 75% in 2011.
However, schools like Burlington Danes remain the exception. Writing as a teacher, it is frustrating witnessing ‘progressive’ education fail our pupils on a daily basis. It is even more frustrating watching millions of pounds being squandered due to these bad methods. It reminds me of the old saying, ‘you can run as fast as you like, but it is pointless if you are going in the wrong direction’.
Across the country we have teachers and schools whose noble aims are confounded by their foolish ideology. We don’t need more money to improve our schools, we just need a return to the fundamentals of good teaching. And thankfully for such tight economic times, such a solution does not cost a penny.