A response to critics #4: you weren’t there, man!
One month ago, I published a historical critique of progressive education entitled Progressively Worse. It has two essential arguments. Firstly, from the 1960s onwards progressive education became a powerful orthodoxy within the state education system. Secondly, it has failed to improve the quality of education in our schools.
Arguments from personal experience are common in education debates. At the risk of stating the obvious, nearly everyone has been to school so nearly everyone has a traumatic/inadequate/mediocre/life-affirming experience to call upon. Such arguments have emotional resonance in spades, but little actual authority.
Some responses to my book – especially on twitter – tried to discredit the book with personal accounts. The critic was either a teacher during the period covered, or they were at school, and it was nothing like what I describe. Here is an example:
In my book, I quantify as best I can the influence of Summerhill school. A. S. Neill’s 1962 book Summerhill was reprinted ten times between 1970 and 1980, and sold over two million copies worldwide. Even in 2007, it was voted the ninth most inspiring book on education in a joint NUT and Teachers TV poll. His work and example are frequently quoted in educational literature from the 1960s and 70s. Don’t believe me? How about former London commissioner for schools Tim Brighouse:
There can be very few teachers in education in the UK and trained during the period 1945-1990 who have not heard of A. S. Neill… Neill represented, especially to teacher educators in the colleges of education and the university departments of education, a noble alternative.
Here is another argument from personal experience:
I do not doubt that the comp where Bleiman taught during the seventies had uniform and all the traditional trimmings. Many did, but the general trend was in the other direction. Bleiman was fortunate to teach at a comprehensive the type of which was increasingly rare.
During the sixties and seventies surprisingly few surveys were made of trends in education. However, those that were made showed progressive ideas to be taking hold. Figures from NFER surveys found that the proportion of comprehensive schools using house systems dropped from 90% in 1965 to 59% in 1970. Similarly, two surveys carried out by Caroline Benn and Brian Simon found that streaming across subjects in comprehensive schools fell from 19.5% in 1968, to 4.5% in 1971. Figures for uniform, prize days, use of strict sanctions and so on proved harder to find, but I am confident that they would all point in a similarly downward direction.
Though some have disputed my argument that indiscipline in schools was caused by progressive education, it is not possible to dispute that such indiscipline was on the rise during the sixties and seventies. According to Robert Thornbury’s 1978 survey The Changing Urban School, in the space of ten years, the number of school fires rose from 18 in 1963 to 89 in 1973, costing £6 million in damage in just one year.
For some, Progressively Worse has a credibility problem. I did not live through most of the period covered in the historical chapters, having only been born one year before Ken Baker’s national curriculum was introduced. However, I hope this has the advantage of allowing the analysis to be informed by historical evidence, and not the outwards extrapolation of my own childhood experience.
Anyway, if you are still unconvinced, for every critic saying their school experience was nothing like what I describe in Progressively Worse, readers have responded online or got in touch with me to say that the content clearly resonated with their own experience. Here are three examples.
At a talk I attended recently, there was a member of the audience who had been a comprehensive school teacher during the seventies. She summed it up nicely: she and her colleagues were guilty of a trahison des clercs against their pupils for their eager embrace of idealistic, but damaging, ideas. Of course, this account was emotionally resonant, but not on its own authoritative.