Progressive education: why it’s time to rescue its rep

Progressivism in the English schools system has been smeared and rubbished for decades, but now is the time to unearth its rich legacy – and it’s not about allowing the kids to run wild, writes Colin Richards
24th May 2019, 12:03am
It’s Time To Rescue Progressive Education's Rep
Colin Richards


Progressive education: why it’s time to rescue its rep

Nineteen seventy-four was an inauspicious time for those supporting "child-centred" education. It was the year in which the head of William Tyndale Junior School took up his post, and in which the West Riding of Yorkshire disappeared as a county and as a local education authority (LEA).

William Tyndale Junior School, in Islington, soon became a cause célèbre both for those sympathetic to its radical ethos and those fundamentally opposed to it. It became notorious as an example of laissez-faire education. Its critics claimed there was neither order nor teaching in the school and, by 1975, William Tyndale had fallen apart.

Its significance was two-fold. Firstly, it raised three fundamental questions for public, political and professional debate: what should be taught; how should it be taught; and who should see to it that it was taught. Secondly, William Tyndale provided opponents of child-centred education with a convenient, oft-quoted caricature of a knowledge-poor, discovery-oriented, undisciplined so-called education. Forty-five years on, this caricature still reverberates on Twitter, in some ministerial pronouncements and, I suspect, in the subtext of Ofsted thinking.

A lazy caricature

That caricature needs to be questioned since it fails to do justice to the complexities and nuances of an important, misrepresented tradition in English primary education perhaps best described as "child-informed" education.

Which brings me to the discussion and illustration of the educational heritage of the West Riding - officially "lost" with the 1974 reorganisation of local government, but certainly alive and well a decade later, as I witnessed first-hand. One can trace the work of the likes of former schools commissioner Sir Tim Brighouse in some way back to the West Riding's innovative chief education officer, Alec Clegg.

In retrospect, it is tempting to view the West Riding with white-rose-coloured spectacles, but it did have some notable (dare I say "outstanding"?) features. For about a quarter of a century, from 1945, Clegg's chief concern was indeed the education of the mind and the spirit of the young people in his charge. In 1972, two years before his retirement, at a summer school for West Riding teachers, he summarised some of his core "child-informed" beliefs:

  • There is good in every child, however damaged, repellent or ill-favoured they might be.
  • Success on which a teacher can build must somehow be found for each child.
  • All children matter.
  • Happy relationships between headteacher, teachers and pupils are all-important.
  • The life of the child can be enriched by the development of their creative powers.
  • And importantly, teachers just as much as pupils need support and thrive on recognition.

Alec Clegg was a formidable and far-sighted supporter of comprehensive education. He oversaw its implementation in the county and pioneered the establishment of middle schools as part of that reorganisation. To support those teachers whose "teaching genius" he constantly celebrated, he recruited like-minded officers, appointed forward-thinking advisers from around the country and enlisted advisory teachers from within the authority. He developed a well-funded and extensive programme of in-service education focused on the local education authority's residential centre at Woolley Hall, but also including a network of teachers' centres.

Working with social services, he pioneered educational efforts to combat disadvantage. He established fruitful working relationships with museums, music organisations, cooperative institutions, colleges of education, local HMIs (Her Majesty's Inspectors) and universities, including Oxbridge, through the provision of "Clegg scholarship" for pupils from disadvantaged communities. Many of those officers who worked for him were very influential when appointed to senior appointments in other LEAs, such as John Dorrell and John Coe, who helped pioneer similar developments in Oxfordshire.

Though not evident in every single school, the LEA developed a recognisable West Riding tradition of child-informed primary education, which in its philosophy, disciplined thinking and rigorous, demanding practice was a far cry from the William Tyndale caricature of laissez-faire, progressive education. It was based on a enriched concept of the "basics" to include the arts and all forms of communication. A distinctive, well-articulated pedagogy was developed, based on the belief that primary-aged children learn most effectively when actively involved in tasks that:

  • Are based on extensive and intensive first-hand experience involving, for example, manipulative skills, close observation, data collection, analysis and interpretation.
  • Require recording, reporting or imaginative responses using oral and written language, art, movement, music and other forms of communication.
  • Demand personal and collective thought to allow the development and application of knowledge, understanding and skills in contexts or in solving problems meaningful to the children concerned.
  • Involve the use of a range of interesting materials and a variety of approaches, especially in the visual arts.
  • Take place in surroundings that add interest and stimulus and provide opportunities for work to be displayed, celebrated and used in the promotion of further learning.
  • Give them enough time to complete their artworks, assignments and investigations so as to produce work of the best possible quality.
  • Feature a variety of mixed-attainment groups formed expressly for the purpose in hand - whole class, small group, paired or individual work - along with limited use of attainment-based groups for aspects of English and mathematics.

The result was a distinctive educational culture releasing the amazing potential of so many children, especially in the area of language, beautifully conveyed in Alec Clegg's published collection The Excitement of Writing (1964) and in wonderfully vivid and evocative artwork displayed both in schools and public spaces throughout the county. Some of this work was of an aesthetic quality rarely, if ever, seen in primary schools 40 years on. The sector is poorer for its absence.

Progressivism in action

Extracts from a published HMI report of a small school staffed by teachers nurtured in the West Riding illustrates that tradition in action. (Note the absence of "Ofsted-speak" in what follows!)

First, there was a sense of confident unity conveyed through a consistent child-informed ethos - very different from the pressurised, defensive atmosphere generated in too many primary schools by the current accountability regime: "Three closely interrelated facets contribute to a sense of harmony: the high quality of children's social and personal education; the approaches to learning fostered in both classes; and the use of themes as bases for much of the work."

Second, there was a focus on personal and social development - very different from the provision of formal lessons: "The work is organised so that the children have many opportunities to work responsibly either as individuals or in small groups, both within the classroom and in other parts of the school. Children readily cooperate with one another in activities provided by the teacher and sometimes in tasks arising from individuals' initiatives."

Third, rather than the current emphasis on written texts and other forms of vicarious experience, the school valued the use of first-hand experience as a stimulus to expressive learning of various kinds, including a wide range of general and more specific skills: "Great emphasis is placed in first-hand experience and observation, either within the classroom itself or in the immediate environment of the school. Such experience is skilfully exploited to encourage children to represent their thoughts and feelings in a variety of modes: oral, written, mathematical, scientific and artistic."

Fourth, there was the encouragement of enquiry-based activity following on from shared experience rather than teacher-prescribed follow-up work after "knowledge-rich" class teaching: "Common experiences - collecting and analysing data, visiting places of interest in the locality, discussion of museum objects - are used as initial starting points but as the work unfolds, sub-groups are formed in which the children work together, exchanging ideas to mutual advantage. Enquiries are pursued to different depths and, to some extent, in different directions depending on the interests and capabilities of the children."

All this but with time also devoted to the "basics", though not as narrowly defined as the current highly prescriptive national curriculum: "Good attention is paid to the development of reading and writing skills, with talking and listening playing equally important roles ... Mathematics arises from, and is applied to, thematic work but is also given separate treatment through the use of commercially produced materials."

Testing was used but not nearly to the same extent or with the same urgency as in current practice: "A reading test is administered periodically to all pupils and a standardised mathematics test to children in the oldest age group. These tests and others devised by the teachers are used to pinpoint areas where children are having difficulties and for which future work has to be planned."

The published report concluded: "Through effective leadership, a common philosophy and approach inform the work of children in each age group. Due regard is paid to academic standards … The sense of shared endeavour and zest for learning nurtured by the school make it a learning community of unusual quality." The one-word descriptor "outstanding" did not appear anywhere in the report - it did not have to.

That conclusion sums up some of the characteristics of a principled, rigorous approach to "child-informed" education that was a far cry from the anarchy of William Tyndale in the 1970s or from the caricature presented in many of the simplistic "progressive vs traditional" debates on Twitter in 2019. Through the effective, sympathetic leadership of Alec Clegg and his fellow officers, there was a common philosophy and approach that gave many West Riding schools a distinctive, unmissable "feel". Some of us had the privilege of seeing it in action. We remember it still.

Conceivably, just conceivably, does it still have some lessons to teach us in a very different context nearly 50 years on?

Colin Richards began his inspectorate career in northern England. The school featured was the first one he inspected as lead inspector. The article is written in fond memory of his mentor, the school's headteacher, Margery Roberts MBE

This article originally appeared in the 24 May 2019 issue under the headline "The lost legacy of progressive schools"

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