In A History of the World, Andrew Marr suggests there needs to be a balance between new ideas and what he calls ‘the wisdom of the tribe’:

What is the right balance between state authority and individual liberty? No successful state is a steady state. All successful states experience a relentless tug-of-war between conservatism, the wisdom of the tribe, and radicalism, or new thinking. The wisdom of the tribe really matters: it is the accumulated lessons of history, the mistakes as well as the answers, that a polity has gathered up so far. But if this wisdom is not challenged, it ossifies. The political revolutions of the British and then the Americans encouraged individuals to alter the balance of powers, without destroying their states. In France, where a conservative monarchy collapsed, revolutionaries tried to wipe out the past entirely and create a new present based only on radical questioning, or ‘reason’; it was bold but bloody failure, copied again and again.

The tug-of-war between tradition and radicalism is as alive in education as it is in politics.

The wisdom of the tribe tells us that throughout history experienced adults have passed on their accumulated knowledge to their inexperienced children. At one time this knowledge represented the skills needed to survive in a hunter gatherer society and would, I imagine, have been a necessarily informal process. As we settled down into agrarian communities and excess food allowed various members of the tribe to specialise in particular trades or crafts – these trade secrets were passed down from master to apprentice to ensure both that essential knowledge was preserved, but also as a way of guarding interests and making sure that individuals were needed by the community at large.

With the inventions of writing and, long years later, printing, mass literacy began to be seen as desirable and educating the young in the skills and knowledge need to participate in an increasingly advanced economy meant that education needed to be formalised. Convenience dictated that schools be built where many students could be instructed by a small number of teachers. Schools began to take on the forms and structure we still recognise today: classrooms, boards on which the teacher writes, desks, chairs, pens and paper. Technology has made refinements and improvements but schools remain essentially the same. Why?

The wisdom of the tribe tells us schools have remained the same because, by and large, they work. New thinking might suggest the reasons are more hidebound and display a fear of change. The late 90s and early 2000s saw something of a French revolution in English schools. Old, established practices were guillotined and there was a mass bonfire of text books and the trappings of tradition. Walls were, quite literally, torn down and shiny new schools built without libraries, staff rooms or much a visitor from the past might recognise. Teachers were told that teaching was of the past and that digital technology had made knowledge obsolete. Punishment was barbarous and discipline doctrinaire. Christine Gilbert and her educational inquisition tried, quite deliberately, to wipe out the past.

I, like many others, assumed this was done for the best, because the old ways had been proved ineffective, and did my best to adapt. I facilitated group discussions, I planned engaging lessons in an attempt to control my students’ increasingly unruly behaviour and I taught a curriculum that was relevant, authentic and exciting.

Then, with the sudden imposition of iron-fisted accountability I was forced to analyse data and saw, to my horror, that students’ results had plummeted. Bristol in the late 90s and early 2000s was the lowest performing local authority in the country. One school I worked in had A*-C results of just 19%. When I moved to new school in Weston-super-Mare I was impressed to find that their results were as high as 25%!

Along with legions of other teachers, I desperately intervened with year 11 students who were struggling to read or write to ensure they could pass their GCSEs. We ‘improved’ coursework, taught to the test and heaved a relieved sigh when the results began to bob up. Then came grade inflation, dumbing down and ‘the blob’. Like many others I surveyed the scorched landscape and saw these well-intentioned innovations had been a “bold but bloody failure, copied again and again.”

I began to question the new wisdom, and challenge the status quo. Radicalism had become traditional and it wasn’t working. Piece by broken piece, I started to put together a new way of thinking from the fractured shards of the past. It became obvious that teachers should be allowed to talk, that ‘independent learning’ resulted only in dependence, that high standards could and should be demanded of students’ behaviour and that if the curriculum wasn’t good enough for my own children, it wasn’t good enough for anyone else’s.

The retreating revolutionary hordes have sneeringly dismissed these efforts as ‘neo-traditionalist’. Great pains have been made to paint so-called neo-trads as shadowy agents of corporate interests and right-wing government. I, like many others of the new traditionalist tribe, am a product of social media. I have found my voice through Twitter and blogging – the most democratic route to influence there is. If I am to be sneered at as a neo-trad then I want to reclaim the word.

My brand of traditionalism is radical. It is a revolution against authoritarianism. It is based on reason, challenge, and new ways of thinking about the accumulated lessons of history. It is an attempt to examine the mistakes to see if they really are mistaken and to investigate the answers to find if they actually work. It is an attempt to alter the balance of power in favour of teachers without destroying the system. It is an effort to reclaim the best of the past, force it together and hold it in creative tension with the best of the new. If being espousing both new and traditional ways of thinking makes one a neo-trad, then I am proud to be a member of the tribe.

Viva the new revolution!