Progressively Worse: a summary and a review

//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.



  1. Alison April 28, 2014 at 7:53 am - Reply

    Interesting to read the timeline but where to next? Where is the research that shows the percentage of successful schools that are following the progressive view and those who are more traditional?

    • David Didau April 28, 2014 at 8:38 am - Reply

      That’s rather disingenuous, isn’t it? Schools don’t label themselves as ‘progressive’ or have to declare their traditionalist credentials. But aren’t the examples of Mossbourne, Harris and Ark persuasive? And the KIPP schools in the US? Also, one of the foundations of ‘new traditionalism’ is cognitive science which supports teacher led instruction and casts grave doubt on discovery learning.

      Conclusive evidence would be nice, but does such a thing exist? And if it did, I feel certain there would still be many who would find reasons to dismiss it.

  2. @TeacherToolkit April 28, 2014 at 8:41 am - Reply

    As a ex-BAEd graduate, it was all part and parcel to study educational history as part of my teacher-training (degree). This was imparted to us, to provide us with a breadth of knowledge beyond ‘just learning to teach’.
    I will certainly give this book a read… regardless of the experience Peal has in the classroom, I’m sure he makes some useful points as a good writer/researcher … and the book will certainly stir debate.

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  4. MainstreamSEN April 28, 2014 at 8:53 am - Reply

    Alison – I would argue there is none because it is not true.

    I have never seen this progressive take over of schools – trends happen, research moves on. The basic premise of state schools in this country is teaching what they have been told to teach – some do it well, others don’t – this is usually down to leadership rather than a teaching ideology.

    Interestingly, in my (limited) experience of private schools, I would argue they are far more liberal with students than state schools. I agree with many private school teachers who blog and are on twitter.

    They can do this because they have the freedom to do so and are not constantly stymied by government interventions, OFSTED and high stakes testing. If we really want state schools to emulate the private sector, then Gove should not interfere. The traditional free schools are creating an idea of private schools that doesn’t exist in my opinion. @julesdaulby

    • David Didau April 28, 2014 at 9:05 am - Reply

      You see? Whatever evidence is presented there will be deniers. The “I haven’t seen it, so I can’t be true” brigade will happily ignore any weight of evidence. But anyone who is in doubt about the ‘progressive orthodoxy’ only has to skim the timeline I’ve presented (And this really is just the tip of Peal’s iceberg.) You can argue, if you will, that these ideas are in some way good, but you can’t argue they don’t hold sway in our schools without wilfully ignoring 50 years of history. You can argue that ‘traditional’ education is not good, but you cannot argue that it hasn’t been systematically rooted out and held to ridicule over particularly the last 15 years. (Well, you can – but these aren’t arguments – they’re merely sticking your fingers in your ears and chanting, “La la la, I can’t hear you.”)

      Jules is correct to identify govt. interventions & Ofsted as the enforcement arm of progressive ideology. One only has to read Harry Fletcher-Wood’s account of Greenwich Free School’s recent inspection to despair that Gove, Wilshaw et al will ever make in roads on the amorphous, ever shifting array of bad ideas which confront us.

      • MainstreamSEN April 28, 2014 at 1:28 pm - Reply

        La la la I can’t hear you 🙂 (I’ve used that line with OA)

        I probably am a denier of this David because what I see as problems arising today are all about government interventions and funding NOT progressive orthodoxy – it might be helpful if you could describe a typical comprehensive school which progressive compared to one that isn’t – I’m struggling to see what you mean.

        Regarding Teacher Training – I went to Homerton, no lesson gradings and certainly no hint of what you describe at your teaching training.

        • David Didau April 28, 2014 at 6:39 pm - Reply

          A ‘typical’ school is one in which the 2007 NC was followed and which has been subject to inspection by Ofsted.

          I’m very pleased you came out your PGCE unscathed, I did mine at Oxford – it was shocking.

          • MainstreamSEN April 28, 2014 at 10:15 pm

            So it all went downhill from 2007?

      • nmurphy2013 April 28, 2014 at 7:20 pm - Reply

        But David whatever the timeline says, we can only talk about what we see in our own schools. And, I have to say, outside Science investigations, I’ve seen very little ‘discovery’ education let alone wild extremes of child-centred education. As an aside, do you consider education writers like Phil Beadle part of the progressive ideology?

        • David Didau April 28, 2014 at 8:14 pm - Reply

          Are you arguing that Ofsted haven’t enforced a preferred teaching style over the past 10-15 years? Or perhaps that this preference hasn’t been for child-centred pedagogy?

          And yes, of course Phil is a product of progressive ideology. But he manages to mitigate this by being scathing of bullshit and a natural subversive.

          • Nmurphy April 29, 2014 at 6:31 am

            Offsets have never marked me down for direct teaching and I haven’t been observed doing anything else. Also child centred as espoused in Plowden refers to involving parents in their child’s education and building stronger relationships between teachers and students. It is not a call for discovery learning and permissive discipline.

          • David Didau April 29, 2014 at 8:25 am

            If Ofsted have never penalised you for direct teaching then you are in a vanishingly small minority. Any review of inspection reports (even very current ones) reveals this to be the case.

            As I haven’t read Plowden for myself I’m unable to comment on its substance but you’re reading of it is utterly at odds with Peal’s. From this I can infer that there may be some misunderstanding from one party or the other. The fact that you are drawing universal and erroneous conclusions about Ofsted from your own experiences leads me to suspect that Peal’s exhaustive research is perhaps more likely to be trustworthy. But, I’m as prone to bias as anyone and, however unwillingly, maybe I must read a 1960s government document if I want to take this any further.

          • nmurphy2013 April 29, 2014 at 7:42 am

            I need to read more of the documents you cite David. I’ve taught for well over a decade and am a convinced believer in direct teaching – and I’ve never been marked down for that by Ofsted or any one else. But that’s not to dismiss your assertion.

            I know I keep harping on about the Plowden report but I really do not see that as a part of a ‘progressive problem’. I’ve sat through Inset about multiple intelligences, VAK, Braingym etc. Clearly, that was a waste of time and effort. Maybe the term ‘progressive’ is being used as a catch all for any relatively recent rubbish we disagree with. It’s certainly a politically loaded term.

            In any case, I’ll get on with my reading, starting with Plowden. If you get around to reading it, I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.

          • nmurphy2013 April 29, 2014 at 9:43 am

            I’m not giving you a ‘reading’ – Plowden is clear about discipline – and it is certainly not ‘permissive’ (other than questionning the value of humilating or physically hurting students – maybe Peal finds that permissive?). It is extremely guarded about ‘discovery learning’. Maybe we will have to read it if we want to dismiss it or claim that is part of a damaging progressive movement. It will also help us to decide if Peal is credible.

            In any case, I’m sure we can agree that letting other people do our thinking is not a way forward. Incidentally, does Peal do any original research?

          • David Didau April 29, 2014 at 10:02 am

            Unless I’m prepared to read everything in the world ever written I’m going to have to take people’s word for some stuff and, to that extent at least, let them do some of my thinking for me.

            I’ve now (very briefly) skimmed the report. There’s certainly seems to be a lot of claptrap in there and some stuff that seems offensively racist but then it’s a product of its time. Sadly I have neither the time not the inclination to read all 1200+ pages but I’m impressed that you have. That being the case I will defer to your conclusions about what it does and doesn’t state about discipline.

            As to Robert’s research methods, you’d have to ask him: @goodbyemrhunter

          • nmurphy2013 April 29, 2014 at 10:51 am

            I know what you mean about the time issue… but I appreciate that you’ve skimmed it David. And don’t worry it’s 1200 paragraphs, that’s only 500 pages 😀

            In all seriousness, I think the debate itself is interesting and provides opportunities to refine our thinking, but ultimately we look at the most reliable research evidence on learning and teaching and get on with doing the best job possible.

            We can’t read everything and where practical teachers should be encouraged to look at original documents because, as we’ve seen with the ubiquitous promotion of ‘AfL strategies’, misunderstandings and misrepresentations occur when research evidence is mediated through another source.

            Where I work, ‘Reciprocal teaching’ and reading is being increasingly mentioned but the original research evidence regarding that approach is much more complex and unclear than the methodology that is being presented by advisers et al.

          • David Didau April 29, 2014 at 11:15 am

            You’re right that we should refine our thinking with recourse to evidence but that is massively time consuming. I thought I knew quite a lot about AfL but my recent and ongoing conversation with Dylan Wiliam has revealed that his view of formative assessment is something quite different from that which is enacted or understood in schools. who knew?

            My point is, we need someone reliable to read and disseminate this thinking. Blogs have really filled a hole here and provide a useful if ad hoc service to the teaching community. Maybe it would be an interesting idea for schools, or groups of schools, to employ researchers in residence to read, digest and share in plain English the research that is being undertaken?

          • nmurphy2013 April 29, 2014 at 11:23 am

            That’s certainly a possibility and perhaps that role needs to me more prominent part of a subject leaders remit if it isn’t already?

  5. CazzWebbo April 28, 2014 at 9:31 am - Reply

    Very thorough blog post. If a systemic analysis of state education were presented, showing the emergence of phenomena over time, in relation and response to other factors, I don’t think you could ever point the finger at any one single entity such as ‘state education’. The blame game is pointless and obscures so much subtle detail that all it can ever lead to is dogmatically sacking the current minister in charge. Would that help? Maybe. What would it change? How much history has locked us into some kind of educational path dependency that is now too entrenched socially, economically and politically to shift? It would probably take something quite disruptive to shake the foundations to allow us to start again…

    • David Didau April 28, 2014 at 9:43 am - Reply

      You’re right – it’s certainly not a question of blame – I’m sure that everyone has always had the best of intentions but you know what you say about the road to hell…

      • CazzWebbo April 28, 2014 at 5:42 pm - Reply

        This road to hell may well lead to some kind of utopia everyone is seeking, if creative destruction / disruptive innovation of the right kind is allowed to happen, completely unearthing previously entrenched rubbish stuff.

  6. Rhys Baker April 28, 2014 at 9:50 am - Reply

    I agree that tone is everything here. I have been reading through the associated blogs and, while I find myself nodding in sage agreement with many of the points raised by the author, I cannot shake a mild distaste whilst reading it. Perhaps it is that the blog posts criticise and deconstruct ‘progressive’ education, but do not suggest alternatives (unlike your blog, David).

    The shock and awe of certainties and grand statements, like ‘national embarassment’ will do nothing to win over the reader. I doubt the author cares about winning over the reader, and that may be my main objection. Authors have a responsibility to attempt win over their readers to their point of view, not merely shout loudly about what is wrong with a certain point if view.

    I rarely have the money to buy a book I know will aggravate me and annoy me, regardless of how enlightened I will be by the end.

    I would be interested to know, David, if the progressive vs. traditionalist approach is a false dichotomy. I haven’t been teaching long enough to comment on this above:

    If ‘engagement” is considered progressive, then I feel lessons need to have a mix of prog and trad. Knowledge cannot be rammed down throats using force of personality alone. You need trad approaches of teacher instruction, practice, testing and feedback. I don’t see why practice cannot use SOME prog methods like group work. Is the author throwing out the baby with (a lot) of dirty bath water?

  7. Tim Taylor April 28, 2014 at 11:05 am - Reply

    I’m confused (and probably emotionally backfiring). But is Peal saying the national literacy strategy and the primary national curriculum (in its various manifestations organised into specific subject domains) part of the progressive movement?

    • David Didau April 28, 2014 at 6:43 pm - Reply

      No he’s not. The timeline is entirely mine – I only included events which demonstrate the rise of progressivism. Peal is nothing if not thorough. But even I said above: “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.”

  8. chrispadden April 28, 2014 at 11:09 am - Reply

    Thanks David – another for my summer holiday reading list.

    Does age matter in the traditional v progressive debate? I’ve worked with early years settings, primaries and secondaries. I don’t really have the expertise to comment with any authority but I couldn’t imagine a common approach being successful.

  9. Toby French (@MrHistoire) April 28, 2014 at 12:18 pm - Reply

    Hi David. Glad you’ve taken the time to read this. Having trained in 2008/9 I can also say that I had no idea there was a debate between prog/trad – only since mbeing on Twitter have I even questioned my practice.

    A note on the Schools History Project: I’m lucky enough to have most of the original publications and I’d have to object to the oft-mentioned ‘moving away from historical knowledge’ statement. No blame attached to you, by the way – this is an idea that has been flying about for a while that isn’t entirely true.

    Whilst the SHP (and later variations) do stress the importance of the work of the historian, which itself might be brought into question as relevant to school history, this is promoted alongisde historical knowledge. Alan Kelly, for example, wrote of ‘diachronic dancing’. That is, being able to both ‘truffle hunt’ for more traditional knowledge, and ‘parachute’ for connections over and across time.

    Perhaps it’s true to say that the current SHP versions of GCSE history are not as fact-based as others. However, initially this was not the aim. The early textbooks produced on power and revolution, for example, use extremely nuanced sources alongside particularly in-depth knowledge to ask questions about causation. Knowledge of historical events, however, is vital for success.

    I do see lots of rubbish that aims to promote overly-skills based learning (or learnacy?) but I also see history teachers who know the value of knowledge. So whilst I understand Gove’s bugbear with history, I also think that with a little less political vitriol, as you allude to, we could have something approaching a level-headed debate.

  10. logicalincrementalism April 28, 2014 at 5:18 pm - Reply

    I think there’s been a progressive hegemony firmly entrenched in our education system over at least the past 50 years. Whether the same is true for schools over the last 20 is another matter.

    • David Didau April 28, 2014 at 6:45 pm - Reply

      I’d argue that between them Ofsted and the 2007 NC made pretty certain that progressive aims were enshrined in the vast majority of schools.

  11. nmurphy2013 April 28, 2014 at 5:27 pm - Reply

    Are there any teachers reading this who have wide experience of ‘ARK type’ schools and ‘non ARK type’ schools and can comment on any differences in approach?

  12. nmurphy2013 April 28, 2014 at 5:40 pm - Reply

    David, have you read the Plowden report? I remember reading the section about behaviour management a while ago and I don’t recall it being ‘permissive’ other than querying the value of corporal punishment.

    • Tim Taylor April 29, 2014 at 8:01 am - Reply

      This I believe is the section of the report Peal is referring to:

      750. Our recommendations are likely to meet with some opposition. We may be accused of encouraging softness and of indulging the evil doer. The majority of teachers sincerely believe that corporal punishment may be necessary as a constraint. Indeed, a lack of corporal punishment in school will often contrast sharply with what happens in the child’s home. We believe, however, that the primary schools, as in so much else, should lead public opinion, rather than follow it. Often corporal punishment is the result of school conditions trying the patience of both teachers and pupils. Smaller classes and the presence of teachers’ aides (see Chapter 24) in all schools, particularly in the educational priority areas, may help those schools whose conditions are such that corporal punishment seems difficult to avoid. Teachers need to give time and individual attention to children who get into trouble; persuasion is a time-consuming business and cannot easily take place if a class is too large. On theoretical grounds alone, we believe that the kind of relationship which ought to exist between teacher and child cannot be built up in an atmosphere in which the infliction of physical pain is regarded as a normal sanction. The psychological evidence which we sought also supports this view. Our Report makes it clear at many points that we believe in discipline. But it can only come from a

      [page 272]

      relationship between teacher and child in which there is mutual respect and affection. There is nothing soft or flabby about this relationship. It is impaired by disorder, untidiness, boredom and slackness and only flourishes in an atmosphere of order and purposefulness. To achieve the right balance between encouragement and restraint, between permissiveness and direction, between reward and admonition, between withdrawal and intervention, is the teacher’s art. It is with this art that much of this report is concerned and the art is not simply an amalgam or sum total of skills, knowledge, methods and aids, but rather a combination of these with judgement, discrimination, sensitivity, sympathy, perception and imagination, all of which are involved in the exercise of discipline and the education of children.

      This is clearly not a case for: “(I kid you not) permissive discipline”.

      For those who knock Plowden and see it as the root of all that is wrong with education should read the report, its available here for free:

      • David Didau April 29, 2014 at 4:00 pm - Reply

        Hi Tim

        What about the survey taken in 1964 into the extent to which schools conformed to the ‘modern educational trends’. On page 278 of volume 2, you can see the fourth question on the HMI survey for schools is:

        4. How do you rate the extent to which this school is in line with modern educational trends, taking into consideration:

        (i) Permissive discipline?
        (ii) Provision for individual rates of progress?
        (iii) Opportunities for creative work?
        (iv) Readiness to reconsider content of curriculum?
        (v) Awareness of unity of knowledge?

        Also, In volume 1, on page 269, a very optimistic view of the need for sanctions and rewards is expressed:


        743. We have made it clear that the kind of school that we should like to see is one in which the delights as well as the rigours and demands of learning are built into the whole life of the place, so that there is little or no need for the stimulus of marks and class places and rewards, or for the sanctions of punishment in the cruder sense. Such schools, as we have said, are not visions of the future. There are many of them.

        I’m told by a corespondent that “The Plowden report has been a nightmare to debate for years, as it was written by a committee and is enormous, so quotations can be found which seem to contradict each other. However, if you ever find the time to read the whole thing, it becomes very clear that progressive methods are enthusiastically promoted, whilst more traditional methods are-at best-grudgingly tolerated.”

        • Tim Taylor April 29, 2014 at 4:57 pm - Reply

          I’m not arguing that Plowden wasn’t advocating progressive education, she clearly was. But the use of the term “(I kid you not) permissive discipline” is misleading at best and deliberately provocative at worst. It is clear from the passages I’ve posted above that the main concern of Plowden et al was to eliminate corporal punishment from primary schools – something I think we would all agree was a very bad thing. It clearly was not her intention to promote the idea that children should be allowed to do what they like.

          As you say the report was written by committee and in hindsight some less temperate language crept into the appendices in Vol.2. However these passages were not written by Plowden herself and, I suspect, where read by very few people.

          I’m afraid this all seems like a desperate ploy to read the Report as an attempt to undermine teacher authority. Clearly not what Plowden herself had in mind.

  13. auntiecod April 28, 2014 at 6:22 pm - Reply

    Would give more depth and weight to understanding the true complexity of this if it were considered in the context of the wider and less selective policy environment in England and the wider ideological history of the times. See and related chapters.

    • David Didau April 28, 2014 at 6:47 pm - Reply

      But this is about the current state of education in UK schools.

  14. bt0558 April 28, 2014 at 6:48 pm - Reply

    I trained at Wolverhampton to teach in Futher an Higher Education in 1995, studying full time with teaching practice. I studied for a PGCE at Middlesex in 2002 full time with teaching practice.

    “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”

    I probably get as angry when people talk about being “in favour of prgressive education” as you do when you see the extent to which you were duped.

    From 1994 to today, I have been exposed to a variety of theories, ideas and research. I have been constantly told that I as a professonal educator need to look at the available research and develop my practice. I have been told that a didactic approach is more effective in some contexts and a more active approach more effective in others. I have used both and find both to be successful. I spent 2 hours talking to an A level economics class last week and on Wednesday I will give them some tasks during which they will develop several conclusion about the nature of the business cycle.

    I don’t consider myself to be “traditional” or “progressive”. I find these labels to be meanigless and pointless.

    I believe it would be clearly stupid to let students loose with a few apples to let them discover gravity. However I think it wholly reasonable to let them drop different objects to see which one hits the ground first.

    I am happy to admit there will be teachers who will go to both extremes and either teach didactically or actively whatever the context. I am sure there are teachers who feel it would be a great idea to let students design the curriculum. There will then be debates around efficiency.

    I will read the book, hoping that it doesn’t simply describe a grand conspiracy based upon selective interpretations of selective events in history as has been the case with other recent exposes of the conspiracy.

    You have recommended the book and on your recommendation I will purchase it with my hard earned pennies and read it a few times. I am hoping that I will discover the grand plot as you have. I will realise that the system let me down and my lack of success wasn’t due to my laziness, arrogance and rebelliousness. I am hoping that I will realise that all of those normal, well balanced teachers I have been in contact with for the last 20 years were in fact all the while part of the “progressive hegemony”.

    For me “progressive” means reacting to changes and basing my practice on reflection. Keeping up. If this is the dominant orthodoxy then I guess I am guilty.

  15. nmurphy2013 April 28, 2014 at 7:12 pm - Reply

    True – but many people are making claims about today’s system by misrepresenting the past. The Plowden report being a case in point.

    • David Didau April 29, 2014 at 4:01 pm - Reply

      Are you arguing that the Plowden Report did not have a progressive bent?

      • nmurphy2013 April 29, 2014 at 6:26 pm - Reply

        The Plowden report states it is ‘progressive’; I wanted to point out that, whatever Plowden thought ‘progressive’ meant, it didn’t involve teachers pussyfooting around with disruptive students or wholesale ‘discovery learning’. Overall, it calls for higher expectations of what children can achieve in Primary Education (beyond preparing for the 11 plus) and greater professionalism among Primary teachers – including the ability to reflect critically on their practice and adapt it in the light of research.

        So I think what I’m trying to find out is this: what’s our definition of progressive? 🙂

        I’ve thought of is being a readiness to adapt my practice in light of the best evidence I have available. This means that, sometimes, ‘the way I’ve always done it before’ isn’t the best way. I wonder how much ‘direct teaching’ – as we would define it – actually happened in the time when ‘traditional’ methods held sway?

        On the wider social context, Curran’s book ‘Power without Responsibility’ (which is actually about press and media) gives some fascinating ideas about the how education was perceived by government as Britain took steps to becoming more democratic in the 19th and 20th centuries.

        I see O level and GCSE pass rates are used to compare eras. Am I right in saying that under the GCE O and A level system (late 80s and before) that only a certain percentage of students could achieve a particular grade? The goal being to sort out the highest achievers for university. Then at some point, if not when GCSEs first were introduced, a system was introduced to provide a benchmark that any number of pupils could reach if they got a certain number of marks?

        • David Didau April 29, 2014 at 8:32 pm - Reply

          Progressivism is a fairly amorphous beast but usually includes child centred learning and down playing the importance of knowledge and teacher authority.

          Yes – O-levels were norm referenced and GCSEs were criterion referenced. Daisy Christodoulou writes well on this:

          • nmurphy2013 April 30, 2014 at 5:44 pm

            Any approach which plays down the importance of knowledge or teacher authority is fraught with danger. I think education should be child centred in that it meets the needs and rights of the child – I don’t take it to mean children choosing their own curriculum etc. but, anyway, I’m not sure how productive it is to get into what child-centred really means 🙂 Suffice it to say, if it’s your definition, I’m against it.

            I think, even though, according to the accepted definition, my teaching style is not ‘progressive’, I tend to be extremely suspicious of people who appear to appeal to some mythical golden age in teaching when standards were universally high and social mobility achievable for all. Not that I’m accusing you of doing that David. Maybe we need to move beyond emotive labels like progressive and traditional to (probably just as emotive) effective and ineffective. What do you think?

  16. […] Rob Peal’s new book Progressively Worse: there are already several excellent reviews online (see here and here). It was when I read Debra Kidd’s post, however, that I decided to write something. In […]

  17. Nick Hitchen April 29, 2014 at 5:02 pm - Reply

    ‘There seems to some sort of consensus that all schools are bastions of constructivist theory in action and that seldom, if ever, are teachers allowed to waffle from the front. Sadly, my experience is that many teachers still spend far too much time standing at the front of their classes talking at students’ from

    Do you no longer believe this to be the case, David?

  18. marko May 2, 2014 at 7:25 am - Reply

    I have taught in a secondary school for nearly 30 years. These “progressive” teaching methods and ideas were, at first, in the background, but largely ignored by teachers. So we would have inset on “multiple intelligences” etc., but carry on teaching as normal.

    I feel that it is in the last 10 years that suddenly Heads got hold of some of these ideas and, encouraged by New Labour, started to make a concerted attempt to dismantle the traditional liberal education. In my school BTECs started their inexorable march. We eventually had over 10 BTECs taught to 14 – 16 year olds across the school. They were “relevent”, whilst subjects like mine (History) were part of a ludicrously old – fashioned nineteenth century curriculum. Shift happens we were told. Whats the good of History when pupils could access all the knowledge they wanted from google. New technology has changed everything, so our curriculum was changed. Time for traditional lessons was reduced and, in our school, year 7 students had 5 hours a fortnight doing “learning to learn”.
    These Heads obviously became OFSTED inspectors and then teaching had to change as traditional lessons suddenly became “inadequate”, resulting in your school reduced to an appalling scenario of “special measures” or that hideous limbo of “requires improvement”. Now our school has 100 minute lessons, as it enables teachers to do about 10 different activities that should result in an “outstanding” judgement.

    Funnily enough David you came to our school recently to do some inset with a company of “experts”. A range of workshops were offered. In one I was yet again informed that pupils have multiple intelligences and that Brain Gym was a wonderful idea. In another we spent 20 minutes looking at photos of pupils in lessons who were sitting in rows and learnt why this was a disgraceful way to organise your classroom. The guy who did it told us his ideals were formed in 1968 and that really he was a bit of a hippy! I kid you not. I like the new wave of educational thinking, of which you are a leading member. Orthodoxies and “truisms” held up to the light of pure reason. But you have a whole establishment to tussle with, who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Its ironic that this makes us allies with Gove, whose politics I largely despise.

    • David Didau May 2, 2014 at 5:13 pm - Reply

      Marko – I’m appalled and deeply ashamed that this happened – I can only apologise. Please email if you’d like to discuss this further:

      Thanks, David

  19. […] and Tom Sherrington balance it up somewhat. Harry Webb is generally more measured and thoughtful. David Didau presents an impressive chronological precis (with some tantalising discussion of the Plowden Report […]

  20. […] 1   While each new expose seems to promise reform, finally, this book — Progressively Worse — is likely to encourage the opening of a lot of floodgates. Not only releasing pent-up-demand for reform, but actually helping focus on root causes. The 50 year chronology of UK progressivism’s growth is equally applicable to Canada, USA, Australia, New Zealand and other nations. […]

  21. […] in 2009 he seemed a despotic caricature. I certainly don’t agree with everything he says, but the more I understand about why he’s doing what he’s doing, the more sense his actions […]

  22. Mel December 28, 2016 at 8:33 pm - Reply

    Wow an amazing timeline

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