Gove’s unfinished business

As Education Secretary, Michael Gove led a crusade against progressive education. Despite his recent move in the reshuffle, Robert Peal argues there is still much to do.

This spring, I published a history of progressive education entitled Progressively Worse. As may be evident from the book’s title, it has little good to say about the movement’s continuing influence in British schools. However, many people have responded to the book by objecting that progressive education was a passing fad of the 1960s and 70s, long consigned to the dustbin of history alongside tie-died T-shirts, the Wombles and prog rock.

One former New Labour cabinet member to whom I sent the book wrote back claiming that Progressively Worse was ‘about 20 years out of date’, adding that an obsession with battles which have long been resolved was typical of ‘those on the very far right’. On the contrary, I would contend that progressive education is in some senses as strong as it ever has been within state schools.

Many associate progressive education with the school scandals of the 1970s, where generously side-burned young teachers in corduroy flares with NUT badges pinned to their lapels allowed pupils to run wild in the name of discovery learning, free expression and permissive discipline. Whilst such extreme examples of the movement are, thankfully, long since passed, their underlying ideas about how and what children should learn have endured.

In essence, progressive education can be defined as an attack on ‘authority’ in all areas of school life. The endemic discipline problems associated with comprehensive schools, and also primary schools, from the 1970s onwards were a direct result of an abnegation of adult authority.

However, progressive education also encouraged teachers to abandon authoritative teaching methods, in favour of more ‘child-centred’ alternatives. Thus, ‘chalk and talk’ lessons where the teacher guided the pupils through the subject content were considered less effective than lessons involving pupils working in groups or independent of teacher instruction, finding things out for themselves. In addition, the authority of academic subjects was also called into question, and damned by many as outmoded, elitist, and unsuited to the demands of the modern world. The value of ‘mere knowledge’ (as it was so often dismissed) was disparaged in favour of ‘skills’, or dispositions such as ‘creativity’ and ‘critical thinking’.

It is these attacks on authoritative teaching methods and the authority of the curriculum which are still so strong in British state schools. Whilst the term was rarely used, the spirit of progressive education animated every seminar and lecture I attended during my own teacher training. I was repeatedly informed that the subject I taught, history, was a ‘skills based subject’ and teaching knowledge was of relatively little importance. Everything I was told about pedagogy suggested that teacher talk was bad, and pupils working things out for themselves was good.

In researching my book about the history of progressive education, I came across this account of teacher-training at Roehampton University in the Guardian:

…already, only five weeks into the course, (students) have begun to absorb the message that will be hammered home with monotonous regularity throughout their four years at Roehampton: children should not be told what to do, but encouraged to learn for themselves… It is as if Roehampton were a desert island, with eulogies on child-centred learning its only discs.

That was written in 1990, but it may as well have been describing my own training in 2011.

The continued strength of progressive education in our schools was reinforced by the big increase in education spending between 2000 and 2010. For the New Labour Education Secretaries that followed David Blunkett, there was no problem too large that a central directive or strategy, backed up by a few hundred million pounds of funding, could not solve. Annual expenditure on education shot up between 1998 to 2010, from £39 billion to £89 billion. Much of this money was channelled through the education establishment, which used it to reinforce their still strongly held faith in progressive education.

Progressive ideas were reframed in the modernising language of New Labour. Classroom fads such as personalisation, independent learning, multiple intelligences, learning styles, 21st century skills, and the social and emotional aspects of learning, rained down on teachers. In 2009, the former Labour Policy Director and education campaigner Matthew Taylor wrote an article for the TES proclaiming ‘New progressivism is a cause worth fighting for’. He explained:

…behind the headlines there does seem to be a convergence of thinking among professionals and mainstream educationalists… A more flexible curriculum is advocated, balancing the acquiring of knowledge with cross-cutting capabilities and the goal of engaging pupils in understanding and designing the learning process. This approach might, for want of a better phrase, be termed ‘new progressivism’.

The progressive ideas were promulgated by a host of quangos and agencies, staffed by stalwarts of the education establishment, which enjoyed ever growing levels of money and influence. Leading this charge was the schools inspectorate, Ofsted.

Those outside the teaching profession can mistakenly associate Ofsted with the ‘driving up standards’ rhetoric of school reformers. After all, Ofsted was introduced by the Conservatives in 1992, and for six years run by noted traditionalist and scourge of the education establishment Sir Chris Woodhead. However, between 2006 to 2011 the role of Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector went to Christine Gilbert, a noted advocate of child-centred teaching methods whose stated mission was to spur a pedagogical reformation.

Ofsted became, in the words of one teacher-blogger, the ‘child-centred inquisition’. Tests, text books and teacher talk would reliably gain a poor observation grading from inspectors, whilst those teachers who put on ‘jazzy’ lessons replete with role play, group work and discovery learning ensured they were rewarded with the much coveted badge of ‘outstanding’. Reflecting on the influence of Ofsted in her 2011 book To Miss With Love, the inner-London teacher Katharine Birbalsingh wrote ‘The eradication of the old-school teacher is the single most destructive “improvement” that is taking place in our schools today.’

When he became Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector in 2012, one of the most significant challenges facing Sir Michael Wilshaw was to rid the inspectorate of this now deeply embedded preference for progressive teaching methods. He made speeches, wrote letters and changed inspection guidance, but inspectors carried on marking down those teachers who do not conform to the child-centred orthodoxy.

In a recent publication for the think tank Civitas entitled Playing the Game, I analyse a sample of secondary school inspection reports from the autumn term 2013. Of all 130 Ofsted reports, 52 per cent advocated pupils learning ‘independently’ from teacher instruction; 42 per cent advocated group work; 18 per cent criticised teachers for talking too much; and 18 per cent criticised lessons in which pupils were ‘passive’ (i.e. listening to a teacher). In all 130 reports, I could find only one example of an inspector recommending a more teacher-led, and less child-centred approach.

I recently read an Ofsted report for Barnsley Academy from February 2014. It observed that pupils’ academic attainment was improving, but had the gumption to criticise the methods used: ‘in too many lessons teachers do too much for the students. This engenders over-reliance by students on being told things rather than finding them out for themselves.’ In making such a judgement, it was almost directly quoting from the 1967 Plowden Report, a landmark publication credited with kick-starting the progressive revolution in British schools: ‘“Finding out”’, wrote Plowden, ‘has proved to be better for children than “being told”.’

The influence of progressive education can also be seen in the strong antipathy towards Gove’s new knowledge-based curriculum from the education establishment. They would far prefer the 2007 national curriculum introduced during Ed Balls’ time as Education Secretary. This skills-based curriculum was the crowning glory of dumbing down during the New Labour years. It was a vacuous document full of meaningless happy-speak and bereft of academic content, stating amongst its aims the creation of ‘confident individuals’ who can ‘communicate well in a range of ways’ and ‘are self-aware and deal well with their emotions’. I remember reading this document prior to starting teaching, and finding it so absurd I nearly jacked it in to find a different job.

On becoming Education Secretary in 2010, Michael Gove made it his first aim to overturn this curriculum. He replaced it with a more academically demanding alternative, but encountered significant push-back from the education establishment which may, in the end, have cost him his job.

In March 2013, a letter from 100 educationists published in the Daily Telegraph used a host of well-worn progressive clichés to attack academic subject-based teaching. It complained that such ‘mountains of data will not develop children’s ability to think, including problem-solving, critical understanding and creativity’. The letter added such a curriculum amounts to ‘rote-learning’ where pupils should really have learning related to their ‘experience, lives and activity.’

Revealingly, the current Labour shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt has suggested that he will not, if his party wins the next election, overturn Gove’s new curriculum. I hope that he has realised the Labour party’s previously relaxed attitude towards progressive education has harmed the very people the Labour party purports to represent. If so, Hunt can perhaps be grouped with previous Labour party politicians who have criticised the misguided idealism of progressive education.

Hunt needs to resurrect this strand of Labour party thinking on education. During the late 1990s, David Blunkett talked tough against what he called ‘trendy teaching’. As Education Secretary, he spurred a renewed and much needed focus on the three Rs at primary schools through the National Literacy and Numeracy Strategies.

Going back further, Jim Callaghan’s famous Ruskin Speech challenged the spread of ‘informal’ teaching methods in 1976. He had been bought up with the rigours of the Royal Navy and the Baptist chapel at a time when as he later recalled, ‘Education was a pearl beyond price to the Labour Movement’. Callaghan was influenced by his head of policy Bernard Donoghue. A working class boy bought up by a single mother in 1930s Northampton, Donoghue derided progressive teaching methods as originating with ‘middle-class Labour people from Islington… Their thinking was based on Guardian style ideologies and prejudices.’

Many self-identifying liberals today still believe that traditional teaching is somehow right wing, whilst progressive education—with its emphasis on a child’s independence and freedom—is aligned with the left. Such a distinction is nonsense. A more useful distinction is that traditional education works, whilst progressive education has repeatedly been proven to fail.

The findings of cognitive science and a rising tide of empirical data are showing that the teaching methods prized by progressive educators are deeply flawed. In addition, reforms to encourage school autonomy are already demonstrating that those free schools and academies which focus on strong discipline, teacher authority and pupil knowledge are rewarded with the most rapid improvements.

In the twilight zone of social media, an effervescence of educators are blogging and tweeting about the neglected merits of traditional teaching. Many of them are teachers with political sympathies very different to Michael Gove’s, but they nonetheless welcoming the thrust of his reforms. Andrew Old, a maths teacher, Labour party member and prominent teacher-blogger, wrote in the foreword to my book:

Many of us who identify our politics most closely with the aspirational, working-class tradition within the Labour Party are happy to campaign as firmly against the excesses of progressive education as we do against the excesses of free-market capitalism. This is for fundamentally the same reason; it increases the deprivation of the less fortunate for the sake of an ideological experiment conducted at their expense by those with little to lose personally.

The movement that so disturbed Jim Callaghan in 1976 remains firmly embedded in many of our schools, and is still holding back the potential of millions of British children. Gove has done a tremendous job challenging this orthodoxy, but there remains much for his successors to do. Crucial reforms to examinations and teacher training are still in their infancy, and may not survive the next election. Were he to become Education Secretary in 2015, I dearly hope Tristram Hunt will have realised, like Callaghan, Donoghue and Blunkett before him, you do not have to be a Tory to be a traditionalist when it comes to education.