Progressively Worse: a summary and a review
I’ve just finished reading Robert Peal’s blistering polemical attack on progressive education in England, Progressively Worse, the burden of bad ideas in British schools, and, while it clearly has an agenda and an axe to grind, it’s a book I hope everyone involved in teaching spares the time to read and absorb.
Doubtless, it’s intrinsically biased nature will ensure that many readers will find it easy to dismiss as ‘prog bashing’, and it certainly takes every opportunity to go for the jugular. In many ways, the endorsement from Michael Gove could well be a kiss of death; Gove could announce longer school holidays, a 10% pay hike and the abolition of Ofsted and still be roundly condemned. But I do hope that enough teachers can see past these failings.
The first part of book is by far the best. In it Peal sets out how ‘progressive’ ideology became entrenched in our school system from its radical beginnings in the early 1960s, through the loony excesses of the 70s, and its intractable resistance to reform over the next three decades.
I consider myself fairly well read and reasonably knowledgeable about teaching, but much of this secret history came as something of a shock. My own teacher training and all subsequent CPD made absolutely no mention of the fact that there was even a debate in education; I was presented with the child centred, anti-authoritarian orthodoxies of progressivism as being unquestionable articles of faith. In the ‘bad old days’ we used to cow children into submission and stuff them full of irrelevant facts; now, in these enlightened times, we facilitate and guide children to discover what’s authentic and relevant to their circumstances and gently negotiate acceptable behaviour knowing full well that any failing on the part of children is a failing of ourselves as teachers. Even though I had my doubts about much of what I was told about learning and education, I never questioned that didactic lessons were obviously harmful and that children should never be passive recipients of inert knowledge. I hadn’t even heard the term ‘progressive’ as applied to education – that’s how little debate there’s been.
Discovering just how systematically I was duped makes me pretty angry. But not nearly as enraged as I feel to discover the extent to which this ideology stymied my own education in the 70s and 80s.
Here are the essential facts re-presented as a timeline (any inaccuracies or omissions are probably mine):
1894 – John Dewey founds an experimental school in Chicago and publishes The School and Society (1900) and The Child and the Curriculum (1902) in which he outlines his child-centred view of education. (He later renounces much of this in Education and Experience (1938) and admits he underestimated the need for teacher instruction.
1921 – The New Education Fellowship is founded by Beatrice Ensor and promotes Jean Piaget’s theory of constructivism in a few independent schools including AS Neill’s notorious Summerhill.
1931 – The Hadow Report, The Primary School states. “The curriculum of the primary school is to be thought of in terms of activity and experience, rather than of knowledge of be acquired and facts to be stored.”
1954 – Informal ‘Look Say’ or whole word reading instruction overtakes didactic systematic phonics in primary schools
1960 – The first state comprehensive to run on progressive lines is opened. It closes after just five years.
1962 – Communication and Learning in the Primary School advises against whole class teaching, lesson periods, classroom competition and marking creative writing.
1963 – Robin Pedley publishes The Comprehensive School calling for mixed ability teaching, permissive discipline and classrooms where “The people who matter – the children – [are] busily concentrating on their particular jobs” with teachers “moving around unobtrusively”.
1964-65 – Harold Wilson campaigns with the slogan ‘grammar schools for all and begins the process of the comprehensivisation of grammar schools and secondary moderns.
1965 – The Schools’ Council is founded by Education minister David Eccles with a brief of doing away with ‘arbitrary’ subject boundaries and teach a ‘whole curriculum’. Lawrence Stenhouse led the Integrated Humanities Project and called for, “a new climate of relationships with adolescents which takes account of their responsibility and is not authoritarian.”
1966 – A Teacher’s Guide to Reading Piaget presents Piaget’s theories as unquestionable fact.
1967 – The Plowden Report pronounces that schools should be judged against five criteria: provision for individual rates of progress, opportunities for creative work, readiness to reconsider the content of the curriculum, awareness of the unity of knowledge and (I kid you not) permissive discipline. It sells 117,000 copies in three years.
1970 – Benn & Simon chart the rise of mixed ability teaching and write in Halfway There: Report on British Comprehensive Schools that it will end “the more rigid structures of the past – in particular the system of subject teaching to ‘homogeneous’ classes supported, usually, by hierarchical forms of government and control.” They described the newly founded Countesthorpe College as “a prototype for the school of the future.” It is damned in a 1973 inspection.
1971 – Michael Young argues in Knowledge and Social Control that traditional knowledge oppresses working class children and perpetrates social inequity – this was used to explain (and excuse) poor pupil behaviour and justify low attainment. He has since recanted and describes his earlier work as “seriously flawed”.
1972 – The Schools Council History Project developed a new history curriculum based on developing historical skills and concepts such as ‘source analysis’ and ‘understanding causation’ and away from knowledge of historical events.
1973 – Teaching qualifications are made compulsory for all state school teachers giving universities and academics unprecedented influence on what teachers are told about education and how they are trained. Prescribed reading lists included AS Neill’s Summerhill, John Holt’s How Children Fail, Carl Roger’s Freedom to Learn, Paolo Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society, Postman & Weingarten’s Teaching as a Subversive Activity and Reimer’s School is Dead. 3 of these books make the top ten in a 2007 NUT poll on the ‘most inspirational’ education books.
1975 – Comprehensive Values written by comprehensive head PE Daunt asserts that no school had a right to impose their expectations on pupil behaviour regardless of any “moral and social faults”. Instead children should be allowed the freedom express themselves as they saw fit.
1976 – The Creighton Report reveals what life inside a ‘typical’ comprehensive school is like: vandalism, graffiti and violence were commonplace and the BBC film an expose for Panorama in which children are seeing swearing, eating sweets, shouting at teachers and refusing to work.
1977 – a survey of school children showed that two-thirds wanted “more discipline in their schools”
1979 – Thatcher is elected and begins a long running campaign to reform education
1980 – for the first time an Education Act makes it compulsory for schools and LEAs to publish their exam results. It is revealed that the ILEA, despite being the highest spending of all LEAs, and only the 54th in terms of social deprivation, ranks 86th out of 96 authorities with just 16 % of pupils gaining 5 or more C grade O levels.
1982 – David Hargreaves’ bestselling book The Challenge for the Comprehensive School argues that poor behaviour is the result of capitalist injustice, schools are agents of social control, examinations should be abolished and that the curriculum should be reduced to two subjects: ‘community studies’ and ‘expressive arts crafts and sport’.
1985 – NASUWT survey reveals that 80% of teachers believed violence and disruption had become more commonplace over the past 10 years. Similar surveys by other unions (PAT in 1987 and NUT in 1988) showed similar concerns.
1985 – the Secondary Examinations Council (SEC) develops National Criteria for the new GCSE exam – they specifically state their intention to do away with the “grammar school curriculum” of the O level. It made clear that the curriculum would not be “excessive in its demands”.
1986 – GCSEs replace O levels and CSEs. Four educationists involved in designing the GCSE publish a handbook entitled All about GCSE which stated their aim to, “introduce courses where all pupils can perceive the content as being relevant, where learning is active and pupil-centred, with the stimulus of varied activities, and where a wide range of skills is valued.” They went on to make clear, “Skills cannot be taught in the traditional didactic manner…some teachers may need to change their teaching methods so they can become facilitators rather than givers of knowledge.”
1986 – the role of HMI is diminished and LEAs are given increasing power to direct schools – the Inner London Education Authority (ILEA) suspends Brain Dugan, headteacher of the highly successful St Judes primary school, and places him on a disciplinary committee for running a school which is “extremely formal” and “highly competitive”.
1988 – Kenneth Baker passes the Education Reform Act laying the groundwork for the National Curriculum. Working groups made up of LEA advisors, inspectors and university academics who ensured that their ideological beliefs formed the backbone of the new curriculum. Paul Black who chaired the Task Group on assessment stated his aim to block “a return to traditional didactic teaching, a return to traditional testing, a return to the O level.
1989 – the Elton Report into poor behaviour in schools showed that the most commonly implemented strategy for dealing with serious misbehaviour was “reasoning with the pupil or pupils in the classroom setting”. A majority of teachers surveyed asked for “tougher sanctions for certain forms of indiscipline”.
1991 – Robin Alexander reveals the failure of Leeds LEA: between 1985 -1991 £14 million was spent implementing a progressive curriculum and teaching methods which resulted in a decline in results.
1992 – Woodhead, Alexander and Rose publish the ‘three wise men report’ revealing the extent of progressive ideologies in primary schools: topic work, the ubiquity of Piaget’s theories of child psychology, sociological explanations for poor attainment and the continued presence of the Plowden Report
1993 – Prominent members of the education establishment circulate a paper which stated, ‘We have people in place at every level of education to subvert the National Curriculum.”
1994 – Chris Woodhead, a well-known opponent of progressive ideals, is appointed head of the newly formed Ofsted. He struggled to get inspectors to abandon their biases and preferences for progressive education. After resigning in 2001 he acknowledged that the extent of the problem was far wider than he could have admitted to while in office.
1997 – David Blunkett criticises education status quo in his White Paper Excellence in Schools and consolidates the process of centralising power over schools, curriculum, assessment and inspection within the education department in an effort to combat “fashionable teaching methods in Britain’s classrooms”. Meanwhile, Blunkett’s chief advisor publishes The Learning Game: Arguments for an Education Revolution in which he argues in favour of Gardner’s theory of Multiple Intelligences.
1998 – National Literacy Strategy prescribes daily literacy hour in primary schools intended to be structured and teacher-led (‘3 part lesson’) as an attempt to force teachers to abandon progressive teaching methods. The National Numeracy Strategy follows in 1999.
1999 – The RSA’s Opening Minds curriculum is launched, replacing traditional subjects with the ‘key competencies of Citizenship, Learning, Managing Information, Relating to People, and Managing Situations – it goes on to be used in about 6% of English schools.
2000 – Government funded charity, Campaign for Learning publishes Schools in the Learning Age which promotes Learning to Learn (L2L) in schools. Contributions from Ken Robinson, Michael Barber and Guy Claxton rebrand many progressive ideas under the banner of ‘learnacy’.
2000 – Radical progressive, David Hargreaves, is placed in charge of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) before moving to run the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust (SSAT) and given the authority to ‘guide’ new City Academies
2004 – Chief Inspector of Schools, Mike Tomlinson, publishes a report that proposed scrapping GCSEs, A Levels and vocational qualifications and replacing them with a single, modular diploma
2005 – the National College of School Leadership (NCSL) – set up to administrate and deliver the National Professional Qualification for Headship (NPQH) – publishes Learning-centred Leadership which supports newly branded progressive ideology: personalised learning, learning styles and student centred leadership.
2005 – Mick Waters (former Chief Education Office at Manchester LA – when he left office its GCSE results were 141st out of 150) is appointed as Director of Curriculum at QCA and given responsibility for updating the National Curriculum
2005 – The Steer Report in behaviour in schools, Learning Behaviour, stated that misbehaviour is a consequence of poor teaching and recommended that lessons be made relevant and fun. It concluded that overall, behaviour in schools was in fact ‘good’.
2006 – Hargreaves publishes an SSAT document, A New Shape for Schooling, in which he explains the concepts of personalisation and co-construction: “Knowledge is not directly transferred to students through teaching, which in an intervention, but in a continuous process of the student’s knowledge-building activities.”
2006 – ATL publish Subject to Change which recommends ‘21st Century’ skills should be taught in preference to tradition subjects.
2007 – New Chief Inspector, Christine Gilbert publishes 2020 Vision which enthusiastically promotes child-centred education. At the same time, new Professional Standards for Teachers are published which mandate the requirement for personalised learning and provision.
2007 – New National Curriculum is launched. It was focussed on 3 Aims: successful learners, confident individuals, and responsible citizens. It also made the teaching of Personal, Learning and Thinking Skills (PLTS) statutory.
2008 – Robert Coe’s research into grade inflation concludes, “The question is not whether there has been grade inflation, but how much.” – he shows that a D grade at GCSE in 1996 was worth a C (the pass mark in English went from 65% in 1997 to 46% in 2002.) Further, a C grade at A-Level in 1980 would be worth an A grade in 2008.
2009 – David Hargreaves appears before the Common Select Committee and advises that the concept of personalisation has “outlived its usefulness” and that it should be abandoned. But at the same time Knowlsey in Merseyside spends £157 million rebranding its schools as ‘centres of learning’. By 2011 Knowlsey has the worst GCSE results of any local authority.
2011 – The Wolf Report in vocational qualifications dismisses most as having “little or no labour market value” and were insufficiently rigorous. Coe’s research showed that without the ‘equivalencies’ of BTECs A*-C results at GCSE would have stood at 56% not the 75% that was reported.
Reading through this chronology (and really, this just skims the surface of events as laid out in the book) it’s very hard to argue – even if you’re in favour of progressive education, that there hasn’t been a progressive hegemony firmly entrenched in our schools over at least the past 20 years.
Seen in light of this ‘secret history’, Gove’s dismantling of the apparatus of the progressive orthodoxy makes much more sense. Of course you’d want to put the head of a successful, traditionally run Academy in charge of Ofsted; obviously you’s want to undo Mick Water’s revision of the National Curriculum and reboot the ‘dumbed down’ GCSEs. And no wonder all those quangos run by members of ‘The Blob’ were abolished. Whether you agree with Gove or not, it’s very useful to understand precisely why he’s taken the approach he has; if you wanted to hack at the roots of progressivism, this is how you’d go about it.
While the first part of the book demonstrates the spread of progressive ideology, the second part of the book focusses on refuting the pedagogy associated. As such, this was territory with which I’m much more familiar and, as far as I’m concerned. an argument that has already been won. It’s worth pointing out that no one ever won an argument in education by being ‘right’ – if nothing else, Peal’s book demonstrates how resistant we are to evidence. Our beliefs about ‘what works’ tend to be a purely emotional assessment and the rest is a post hoc rationalisation. If you believe progressive education to be right, you’ll probably be unfazed at the evidence ranged against it and find it relatively straightforward to construct logical seeming counter arguments. This is the well documented Backfire Effect (a subset of the better known Confirmation Bias.) And obviously, the greater the vested interest you have in progressivism being right, the harder you’ll find it to conceive that it might not be. No wonder perhaps that it’s mainly younger teachers with less time spent marinading in the ideological school stew that seem at the fore front of the traditional backlash. If you can suspend your emotional distaste at the thought that you might be wrong, then maybe you might find yourself persuaded.
But sadly, Peal concludes a little hysterically by dismissing state education as a “persistent national embarrassment”. Doubtless this kind of bombastic tribalism will be all the excuse many potential readers need to ignore the message, and as a result I don’t think many will have their minds changed by reading this. Had it taken a more neutral tone, potentially more hearts and minds might have been won. I hope I’m wrong.