Myth Seven: 'Progressive education lowers standards'

Janet Downs's picture
This is the final short extract from School Myths: And the Evidence That Blows Them Apart.

Distortion of the past is a vital part of the new traditionalists’ political arsenal. In his February 2013 Social Market Foundation speech Michael Gove asserted that ‘since 1967 and the publication of the Plowden Report - the new educational orthodoxy was progressive ... Didactic became a pejorative term.’ Not so, argues Professor Robin Alexander, curriculum expert and chair of the Cambridge Primary Review. ‘Although [Plowden] argued for children to be helped to cross subject boundaries in pursuit of knowledge and understanding, Plowden actually favoured a measured progression from a relatively open curriculum in the early years to a subject-differentiated one by age 12 – hardly revolutionary – and its discussion of curriculum was in other respects pretty conventional, using all the familiar subject names.’

Another claim made by Gove is that, under Plowden, ‘The role - and authority - of the teacher … was undermined … The teacher was demoted from being “the sage on the stage” to a “guide by the side”.’ Again, Alexander offers a factually based rebuttal: ‘Plowden was ... ridiculed by the demonisers for saying that all teaching, even in large classes where this was clearly impossible, should be individualised. In fact, while Plowden “welcomed the trend towards individual learning” it actually recommended “a combination of individual, group and class work”’.

…belief in a common curriculum was one of the original aims of the comprehensive reform movement, and it is simply inaccurate to argue that these same reformers were anti-knowledge. However, many in that early reform movement did believe that education was about more than didactic (and dull) methods of classroom teaching and that the motivation and experience of the learner was an important factor in educational success. This could be called ‘child-centred’; it could also be called plain common sense.

Previous short extracts and quick links are here:

Myth One: ‘Comprehensive education has failed’.

Myth Three: ‘‘Choice, competition and markets are the route to educational success’.

Myth Five: ‘Teachers don’t need qualifications’.

Myth Six: ‘Private schools have the magic DNA’.

School Myths: And the Evidence that Blows Them Apart is available for Kindle from Amazon at £3.

ADDENDUM Debra Kidd describes in her latest blog how role-play and drama-related activities, sometimes dismissed as 'progressive', can enhance children's learning.
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Jenny Collins's picture
Fri, 13/02/2015 - 15:28

I tried to address the issue of 'distortion of the past' when I wrote a piece on my blog discussing the book 'Progressively Worse: The Burden of Bad Ideas in British Schools' by Robert Peal (April 2014). In suggesting that Civitas, the publishers of the book, might not be entirely balanced in outlook - given this think tank's origins at the Institute of Economic Affairs - I was accused of cooking up 'capitalist conspiracies'. You can see this debate unfolding in the comments beneath my article:
There are two points in my article:
1. It is not accurate to say that we are living in dangerously 'progressive' times when it comes to education in the UK
2. People who suggest that we are living in dangerously progressive times do so in order to reinforce the idea that the whole system needs a drastic, preferably market-based, solution
This second point does not seem unreasonable given the general outlook of Civitas

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 13/02/2015 - 16:59

Jenny - and Civitas is behind the 'What Your Year... Child Needs to Know' series based on the 'knowledge rich' curriculum promoted by school ministers and used in the Pimlico schools sponsored by the academy chain started by Lord Nash before he became a schools minister.

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