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

Labour Prime Minister Jim Callaghan: a critic of progressive education

Labour Prime Minister Jim Callaghan: a critic of progressive education

First published here by Open Democracy.

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.”


~ by goodbyemisterhunter on January 7, 2013.

9 Responses to “You don’t have to be a Tory to be a traditionalist in education”

  1. Can you back up your sweeping generalisations about schools in the 60s and 70s with anything other than a few bits of anecdotal evidence?

    As a teacher trained at that time and who qualified in 1975, I was part of this ‘progressive’ wave to which you refer, and good classroom organisation and discipline was always stressed by our tutors, in our school placements and in all the schools in which I ever worked since. As for the false dichotomy you make between ‘progressives’ vs ‘traditionlists’, the reality in most schools is, and was, much less marked. For example, genuine child-centred education was not the hippy-dippy concept you refer to but made us ask questions about how children learned best in order to teach them better. After all what else can education be centered on other than the children? (I recommend reading the Plowden Report to see how scientifically researched it was). Similarly, your ‘skills vs knowledge’ debate makes no sense at all. Do these ‘skills’ you denegrate include reading and writing, or are you willing to concede, as I do, that skills and knowledge are interdependent?

    If you’re as experienced in teaching as you claim, I find it difficult to understand how you can adopt the simplistic approach of throwing everything you disagree with in into one progressive bucket while lauding whatever you view as ‘traditional’ methods at every opportunity. Observing many teachers in action, in a variety of situtations, I’ve seen a range of skills and strategies work (and sometimes fail). I’ve found teaching to be complex art which relies on listening and adapting to changing situations, and after a long career I’m still learning.

    • “what else can education be centred on but the children?”

      When you state the case about child-centred education that way, it looks unarguable. But it is loaded with assumptions about the nature of the children in question, e.g. that they know/care about what is best for them in terms of their education.

      Could I possibly suggest that if you did your training in 1975, the ‘progressive’ doctrine had not really reached full penetration? Hunter’s description of his ‘training’ in behaviour management chimes in perfectly with what I experienced in my (recent) training.

  2. First…

    “A whole generation of idealistic, middle class teachers who trained during the 1960s and 1970s fell under the spell of such rhetoric.”

    I think you have the time-scales wrong. The progressive movement was EMERGING in the 60s and 70s; which means that most teacher-teachers (i.e. academics at teacher training colleges and universities) were still traditionalists. It wasn’t until the 80s and 90s, when the generation who had TRAINED in the 60s and 70s began to move into teacher-training, that progressivism (word???) really took hold. I trained in the late 90s at Warwick, and it was very ‘progressive’ – i.e. don’t stand at the front talking, let the children discover their own path to learning, reading for meaning (not accuracy), shouting = corporal punishment (= v.v.bad), etc. etc.

    (This may slightly explain what artboy1 says above.)


    “For those who are dubious of how this would look, they need look no further than Britain’s world renowned independent schools.”

    I’m not sure about this, not because I disagree that our independent schools are generally very effective* but because you aren’t comparing apples to apples – even the most “comprehensive” private school retains the right to (permanently and ARBITRARILY) exclude (or not take on in the first place) highly disruptive pupils.

    (Bear in mind the word ARBITRARILY – that’s the important bit – they don’t have to justify it to anyone, they don’t have to answer for it, they can just quietly ‘disappear’ them. This excludes the disruptive influence and puts the fear of god into everyone else.)

    Unless you can explain how the state sector can achieve a more traditional approach WITHOUT exclusions/ selection; I don’t buy it as a realistic possibility, much as I would LIKE it to be one*.

    (*I went to public school, and I’ve sent my son to one!)

    • State schools can do this if they want to (and do). There are many ways of making undesirable students ‘disappear’ without the board of governors needing to know about it.

  3. […] You don’t have to be a Tory to be a traditionalist in education […]

  4. Mr Hunter, you are, sadly, correct in every aspect of your analysis. I went to a State comprehensive and can easily echo Fiona Phillips’ experiences. I did teacher training at Sussex University in 1998-9 when the child-centred, far-left bias was complete and unquestioned by both staff and students (if anyone did disagree, they kept their mouth shut, as did I to my shame). Every single one of the teacher training lies you have written about was presented to us as unchallengeable dogma; woe betide any who questioned!
    My experience teaching History in inner city State schools bitterly parallels yours and, when I was Head of History at a State school, my attempts to teach a knowledge based, chronological history curriculum, establish and maintain a culture and ethos of classroom order and discipline and to support my junior staff in the same endeavour resulted in the Head conducting a sustained campaign to get rid of me by bringing me before disciplinary panel after disciplinary panel (including one for having the temerity to defend myself against a pupil who assaulted me for daring to put her younger sister on detention) and labelling me an “antedelluvian Nazi!”
    It is by turns heartbreaking and enraging that generations of working class children, those who most need decent education, have been utterly abandoned and betrayed by the State educational establishment.
    However, I must sound a note of caution on your view that Britain’s Independent schools, “have been comparatively immune to the developments of progressive education.”
    I am now working in an Independent school (thank heaven!) and, while it is enormously better than being in the State sector, the insidious rot of progressive education is, plainly, spreading. Now, my school is not in the upper echelons of the Independent sector so I don’t know if Marborough, Charterhouse, Repton, et al are still successfully resisting, I certainly hope so! But, in the smaller and less prestigious ranks of Independent schools, child-centred learning, facilitating NOT teaching, group work for group work’s sake, etc are not just being introduced wholesale (and they are) but, most worryingly, are increasingly the criteria on which independent schools are judged by I.S.I. (Independent Schools Inspectorate).
    This should not come as a surprise:
    ALL of higher education and ALL of teacher training is now populated and controlled by the far left (with a few noble but isolated exceptions); the media is almost entirely left wing in its output and the arts and popular culture are relentlessly left wing, narcissistic and nihilistic. Given that the entire tenor of our culture and society is this way and those who resist or disagree are punished (socially, financially and, increasingly, legally) how could Independent schools not become infected? They are not independent of the entire society and culture that surrounds them.
    Voices such as yours are more needed than ever and I thank you sincerely for efforts and honesty. Please do keep going!

  5. On the “Left and Right” argument, I would remind us that Tony Benn, at every single election count, firstly thanks “The Levellers, Chartists and Suffragettes.” And rightly so.
    Low voter turnout is because so many do not know, and therefore do not respect, their place in English history.
    Children should know who they are without him prefixing this with a brief reading from the diary from a renting farm worker who was turned away from a voting booth, and ask us to imagine how we would feel.

  6. Thank you for writing this. I am a new teacher and I see the dismal failure of “progressive” teaching methods every single day. Discipline is dire. Expectations are often low. The impact some unruly kids have one those who want to learn is deeply depressing. Teachers are given little respect. Primary schools are doing nothing to prepare children for secondary school… Many children need to be told unambiguously what something is; they do not appreciate the ambiguity of “discovery” because they don’t know whether what they’ve discovered is correct or incorrect – or even what they’ve “discovered”. At a school I recently taught at anybody who spoke in favour of more traditional teaching methods was regarded, as you say, as somehow unfit to teach. I heard senior members of staff referring to people who were not members of the NUT/NASUWT as “fascists”. To ‘come out’ and say you did not support Labour or – heavens above – that you thought some of Michael Gove’s reforms were a good thing put you at risk of losing your job.

    I am a history teacher and I think an emphasis on knowledge rather than skills is what is needed in the subject. As things currently stand many pupils leave school bewildered about their past.

    Thank you once again for writing this article.

  7. […] You don’t have to be a Tory to be a traditionalist in education […]

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