Perception vs Reality

I wrote the following piece because I was amazed by a book called ‘Progressively Worse’ by Robert Peal (April 2014). It is a revisionist history of education in England, concluding that we live in a country with a dangerously progressive educational agenda. This struck me as very odd. What I’ve written here is regarded as baffling by Andrew Old who wrote the foreword to Peal’s book; his comments are beneath the article along with my response.

“Psychosis causes people to perceive things differently from those around them…Delusions (are) where a person believes things that, when examined rationally, are obviously untrue.”
NHS website

I met a teacher today who began her infant school teaching career in 1986. Of course by 1988 she was faced with a new national curriculum and the other key developments of the time (Literacy and Numeracy hours in primary schools/Ofsted). She summed up her disgust with these developments in a single image: she told me her Year 1 class had to lose its dressing-up-box. Her decision to leave teaching was accompanied by a simultaneous decision to ‘home school’ her own two children. Today both children are at university.

To her these developments were not the continuation of a wishy-washy progressive conspiracy but more like the end of anything like a set of ‘progressive’ ideals. Before we go any further let’s define what is meant by ‘progressive’ by combining two authors’ attempts to list the key features. Firstly we have a list from John Shotton’s history of education and schooling from 1890 to1990, ‘No Master High or Low’ (1993):

1. Mixed ability, flexible, vertical groupings working together and/or individually in an open plan classroom under a team of teachers.

2. The day is integrated, the curriculum problem – or concept – based.

3. A wide range of resources is drawn upon (audio, visual equipment etc but also the local community in various ways)

4. The teaching and learning is child-centred, based on the pupil’s interests, needs and skills

5. The teacher is a guide and supporter in the child’s pursuit of learning.

6. Academic learning is balanced by social and emotional learning emphasising creativity and self-expression

7. Decisions in the school are made by all those involved in it

Note that the teacher I met today explained to me that the teaching she did when she began her career was based upon the interests of the children in her class (see no.4 above)

Now let’s look at a very recent post from http://edsacredprofane.wordpress.com/2014/11/10/an-antidote-to-neo-traditionalism-towards-the-new-progressive/ written by a teacher working in vocational further education:

1. Progressive education is a social science.

2. Progressive education is essentially critical; it gives primacy to independent thinking based on knowledge and not knowledge itself.

3. Progressive practitioners are collaborative and outward-looking.

4. Progressive education is evidence-formed, not evidence-based; research data should be grounded in practise.

5. Cognition is not based upon memory, it’s holistic; both social and emotional

6. Knowledge is constructed not transmitted.

7. Practitioners use collaborative pedagogic tools.

8. Pedagogical approaches are used dependent on context not on dogmatic assumptions.

9. Behaviour is negotiated but ultimately based on the premise that everyone, at whatever level they are currently at,  can work and achieve

Given the content of these two lists it’s hard to imagine anyone celebrating a victory for the ‘progressives’ with the introduction of the national curriculum, the literacy and numeracy hours and a new inspectorate introduced very much to police this brave new world in a punitive, as opposed to supportive, manner. Nonetheless there are those who argue that we are still working, in 2014 in England, very much within a damagingly ‘progressive’ system. I am thinking in particular here of Robert Peal and his writing for the ‘think tank’ Civitas. When the Black Papers were published in the late 1960s they represented a legitimate response to real changes happening in education across the board from primary schools to universities. Progressive ideas were relatively new to the mainstream and it was natural that they would be questioned by those with more entrenched views about what education should look like. Serious historians of education, who are not writing for ‘think tanks’ with particular agendas, recognise that by the late 1970s the progressive approaches outlined above were under attack and that a decade later things swung firmly away from these  ideals, for better or worse.

It seems odd then that anyone should be suggesting the current English education system is weighed down with unhelpful, outdated progressive ideals. Odd, that is, until one considers the origins and purpose of Civitas: as a branch of the Institute of Economic Affairs it represents an anti-statist and pro-market position. The NUT, in a recent article detailing the features and implications of the marketisation – or corporatisation – of education states “…to achieve the necessary market conditions, the monopoly of state provision had to be broken.” Crucially the market virtue of competition is introduced at all levels: standardised tests that are publicly announced to create a ‘quasi-market’ of competitive, atomised schools; performance-related-pay, again an anti-collaborative idea; constant measurement and assessment (see this article about ‘rampant testing’ in America http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/10/us/states-listen-as-parents-give-rampant-testing-an-f.html?hpw&rref=education&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&module=well-region&region=bottom-well&WT.nav=bottom-well&_r=0 or if you prefer look into the proposed new tests for 4/5 year olds in England) emphasising competitive values for staff and students alike.

These are the preferred characteristics of a marketised system, they have nothing to do with what is best from a teacher’s or learner’s point of view, these are market ideals. No notable educational philosopher has ever argued for these features in an educational setting. In order to promote and pursue this ideal the reality of what teachers do and how teachers approach their work must be distorted and presented in crude ‘black and white’ terms in order to present a ‘debate’ where people must take sides. Thus we have the recently published ‘Progressively Worse’ (written by Robert Peal and published by Civitas) not only simplifying the picture into one of either traditional or progressive but exaggerating the case wildly to make a false point about the dangers of progressivism in 2014. This is to ignore the reality that all teachers, in all subjects, at all levels mix the two approaches. This is, after all, 2014. Take for example this handout that I was given two days ago during some staff training. It’s not very revelatory, except perhaps to Robert Peal. It simply shows how a lesson (in this case a science lesson) might be more teacher-oriented, or more student/pupil oriented. The decision as to where any lesson might be on this spectrum is based on many factors, not least the discretion of the teacher:

Click on the picture to enlarge it.

Teacher or Learner directed

Robert Peal is a Cambridge-educated historian who must be well aware of the biased work he is producing. Presumably if another organisation paid him more he could write a paper entitled ‘Progressively Better’. As the ‘debate’ keeps being re-hashed for cynical and self-serving reasons we have teachers and children buffeted about by politicians who regard the output of organisations like Civitas as relevant and valuable, while disregarding important internationally respected research (e.g. the OECD’s latest report that states ‘school choice and competition are not related to improved performance’).

It’s important that teachers, above all, understand the ‘why’ of this debate. It’s not about what’s best for children, or educational philosophy or thorny issues of implementation, it’s about money and it’s about private interests taking over public interests. That’s why books like ‘Progressively Worse’ have been written: to cause people to believe things that, when examined rationally, are obviously untrue.

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7 comments on “Perception vs Reality

  1. I find this baffling. You are absolutely right that Ofsted was not progressive to begin with, and that Blunkett’s introduction of NNS and NLS were a move away from progressivism (the former more so than the latter). However, I don’t understand what that has to do with your analysis of today. Both NNS and NLS were abandoned, and OFSTED reformed, moving things back to progressive orthodoxy.

    You appear to be looking at a very small period of time when progressive education was resisted in some parts of the system, (i.e. when Woodhead was HMCI, Blunkett was Education Secretary and Blair was prime minister) and then claiming that this era was the norm and continued. Actually it was an exception and all three men were vilified for their views by the education establishment, who became more dominant again from 2001 to 2010.

    Incidentally, if you do have to resort to ad hominem arguments about capitalist conspiracies you might want to make them more plausible. As I understand it, Civitas split from the IEA precisely because the IEA was *more* pro-market than Civitas. I know that one of the writers of previous Civitas reports on education was a Labour Party member. I wrote the foreword to Rob’s book and I have been an active member of the Labour Party for over 20 years and spent an hour today delivering Labour lealflets.

    Rob has already answered the claim he cherry picked in a blogpost here: http://goodbyemisterhunter.wordpress.com/2014/05/28/a-response-to-critics-1-cherry-picking/

    Tell me, did you actually read the book? The historical part is the best bit and, I think, of a very high quality.

    • Andrew,
      Thank you for your response. I am always glad to have a dialogue with people about this stuff. I write about what I see in my workplace and I try to combine this with some level of understanding based on my own reading about the history of education and the different educational philosophies.
      To answer your question: I have not read Robert Peal’s book. I read a review here:
      http://www.learningspy.co.uk/featured/progressively-worse-review/
      I don’t think I even finished the review! I did read Peal’s defence of his cherry-picking.
      As you know the education system in England was heavily centralised in the late ’80s, this was a disempowering move for teachers. The NLS and the NNS were never compulsory but by that time the workforce had been disciplined, it had become the new orthodoxy, compulsory or not.
      The education system in this country is recognised across the world as one that encourages critical thought and creativity (two progressive pointers). So it’s true to say that we have aspects of ‘progressivism’ in the English system. {An interesting-looking book has recently been published studying the way that the Chinese and East Asian education systems are not able to produce the levels of original thought that Western systems do (Out of the one billion people who have been educated in Mainland China since 1949, there has been no Nobel prize winners…an interesting attempt to measure this stuff!) You’ve probably read the same review as me: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2014/nov/20/myth-chinese-super-schools/ The funny thing is that the author Yong Zhao sees this as a good thing!} Like I say in the article I think we have a mixed system and that’s no bad thing: diversity is a strength.
      It amuses me to be accused of ‘ad hominem’ and ‘straw man’ as I see these terms all the time in online debate and it was only a matter of time before someone told me I was doing it too! Civitas certainly was part of the Institute of Economic Affairs, if it no longer is then I stand corrected. The point remains the same: it’s not an unbiased institution, its origins alone tell us this. We’re not talking about entirely objective academic work here. I wonder if you think that ‘Waiting for Superman’ is a reasonable and balanced account of US education?
      One of the reasons for the somewhat strident tone of ‘Perception vs Reality’ is because, at last, the NUT is spelling it out for all members too: there is a corporate agenda at play here. Have you read Christine Blower’s article in the latest NUT magazine ‘The GERM is spreading’? I felt really pleased that the NUT published this piece. I’ve been emailing them for years encouraging them to educate members about exactly this problem globally. I do regard what is happening as a direct attack on what is good about democratic institutions i.e. accountability.
      I am surprised by your appeals to a Labour party background and the Labour party background of another Civitas writer: you don’t mean that this exempts you from any possibility of approving of corporate values within public education? New Labour and Conservative are really peas in a pod when it comes to selling off public institutions! You are quite right to pick up on my general outlook though, summed up by John Maynard Keynes: “Capitalism is the astounding belief that the most wickedest of men will do the most wickedest of things for the greatest good of everyone.”
      I have tried to illustrate that in the 21st century teachers use either more student-oriented or more teacher-oriented material depending on what and who they are teaching. We are neither radically ‘progressive’ (a point of view that had some resonance in the ’70s when there really were schools run by children right in the middle of London) nor rigidly ‘traditional’ (always rows of seats, didactic, little discussion, knowledge-transmission etc) At best I would think we’re somewhere in the middle, though with such a test-dominated system the drift is inevitably towards a more traditional approach as this lends itself to preparing for and passing exams.
      When I hear about people suggesting we are in wildly ‘progressive’ times I become suspicious because I don’t see it around me as a teacher (since 2001). Also I know enough history to appreciate that there was a time when a significant minority of schools could be described in this way and it just isn’t like that now. Because I see the outlook as a false one I then have to ask why anyone would portray things in this way? And that’s when I connect the perspective with that of a pro-marketisation point of view. It’s a perspective that does two things: firstly it denigrates the current state system and secondly it pushes for a type of education that fits the marketised model (i.e. very heavily test-oriented).
      For more on my point of view when it comes to marketisation please see my letter to Gabriel Sahlgren at the Centre for Market Reform of Education (an organisation that certainly does spell out what it is aiming for!)
      https://jennycollinsteacher.wordpress.com/2013/11/08/market-reform-of-education-my-letter-to-gabriel-h-sahlgren/
      Once again, thank you for responding. It all helps.

  2. As it’s the holidays I might as well get back to this. You say you want “dialogue”, but your reaction to having factual mistakes in your narrative pointed out is to assert the same narrative again but with added conspiracy theory elements. Your reaction to having your bad arguments pointed out is to observe that this often happens a lot on the internet, but not to re-evaluate those arguments.

    What sort of dialogue does this actually allow for? If you are indifferent as to whether the facts support your argument, and as to whether your argument is actually coherent, what possible contribution can anyone with an opposing view make to the discussion?

    • Quite right! What better time than the Christmas holidays for a healthy exchange of points of view? I’ve had fun in the last few weeks telling fellow-teachers about a book that states we are in a dangerously progressive era. Of course they laugh and some ask who published it. I tell them it’s been put out by a think-tank and they usually just roll their eyes.
      Where are my factual mistakes? It is your opinion that things moved “back to a progressive orthodoxy”. This isn’t a fact. You also claim that the education establishment (who they? do you mean actual teachers and headteachers rather than politicians and think tanks?) “became more dominant again from 2001 to 2010”. Again this is an opinion. These things are not easily measured: this is central to our discussion. It’s an exchange of points of view like when a football player falls down and we debate about whether he was pushed or if he dived. You go along with Peal’s book but this doesn’t mean you are in command of the ‘facts’ and a ‘coherent argument’ yourself. That’s the point of my original post.
      Also, I must ask, what do you mean by ‘conspiracy theory elements’? Are you suggesting that to openly talk about the corporatisation or marketisation of education in the UK is to be mired in wayward conspiracy theory? If so then I certainly have a lot less difficulty understanding your point of view.
      You have not addressed the fact that Civitas is a think-tank with an agenda and not a totally unbiased institution. You have not addressed the idea that this may be a discussion with shades of grey (in my opinion ‘progressive’ and ‘traditional’ these days sit alongside one another; notice this is an opinion and I do not pretend it is a fact). You have not addressed the idea that having some elements of a ‘progressive’ approach may actually be a good thing. You have not addressed my point that both the Labour and Conservative parties have been pushing for a marketised/privatised model for decades now.
      I don’t have a ‘narrative’. I have a point of view that is out of step with yours. Can you aid my understanding by addressing any of these issues?
      Once again, with the greatest respect, thank you for continuing to engage in this discussion.
      P.S. I do accept that I stooped as low as an ‘ad hominem’ argument by suggesting that Robert Peal is a ‘hired pen’ who will write whatever is required for any one who pays. I suppose this just exposes my deep suspicion of think tanks (I regard them as distorting and not very democratic) rather than a personal attack on Mr Peal. In his recently published ‘Establishment’ book Oliver James begins with a chapter on the damaging impact of numerous think tanks. Civitas is not mentioned in his book.

  3. “I’ve had fun in the last few weeks telling fellow-teachers about a book that states we are in a dangerously progressive era. Of course they laugh and some ask who published it. I tell them it’s been put out by a think-tank and they usually just roll their eyes.”

    This sounds like bollocks.

    “Where are my factual mistakes?”

    The “free market” thing about Civitas was an obvious example, but also your complete lack of awareness as to what changes had happened before 2010 and what direction they were in.

    “It is your opinion that things moved “back to a progressive orthodoxy”. This isn’t a fact. You also claim that the education establishment (who they? do you mean actual teachers and headteachers rather than politicians and think tanks?) “became more dominant again from 2001 to 2010″. Again this is an opinion. These things are not easily measured: this is central to our discussion. It’s an exchange of points of view like when a football player falls down and we debate about whether he was pushed or if he dived.”

    The point is that you have not looked into the facts behind the opinion. In fact you seem utterly indifferent to what actually changed in that period I described. By all means declare my opinions to be opinions, but there’s no dialogue to be had about the opinions unless you are interested in the facts.

    “Also, I must ask, what do you mean by ‘conspiracy theory elements’? Are you suggesting that to openly talk about the corporatisation or marketisation of education in the UK is to be mired in wayward conspiracy theory?”

    To talk about GERM is. There is no cabal pushing just one type of policy. There have been plenty of progressive reform movements operating internationally. Often they involve the very people who are included in GERM conspiracy theories.

    “You have not addressed the fact that Civitas is a think-tank with an agenda and not a totally unbiased institution.”

    I’m not sure how anyone is meant to address that. You certainly seemed not to care about the biases of the people you agree with.

    “You have not addressed the idea that this may be a discussion with shades of grey (in my opinion ‘progressive’ and ‘traditional’ these days sit alongside one another; notice this is an opinion and I do not pretend it is a fact).”

    Is there anything to address? It’s hard to deny people do disagree when we are, well, disagreeing. Saying “that’s just your opinion” or “it’s all shades of grey” is not part of a dialogue, it’s an excuse not to debate.

    Regardless, it’s no good listing things I haven’t addressed, unless you care about the facts or care about the content of the arguments rather than who makes them, how can we discuss anything?

  4. Bollocks? Crikey! I wasn’t expecting that kind of language. In the Lego Movie President Business has a Think Tank. He’s the bad guy. It’s all bollocks. Especially the Civitas bollocks.

  5. “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.”
    Janet Downs (Local School Network)

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