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The report that failed

Plowden never had much influence on teachers' classroom practice. Every study on teaching methods has shown progressivism to be a minority taste, usually restricted to 10 per cent or less. Why?

First, it is much more difficult to be an effective classroom manager, with 30-plus pupils, if you adopt progressive ideas than if you use more conventional techniques. As the Alexander, Rose and Woodhead (the Three Wise Men report) noted in 1992, whole-class teaching gives at least the impression of order and discipline.

Second, group work and independent learning have cultural loadings: children of well-educated professional parents responded well, but those from other social groups found it more difficult to accommodate to them. Most importantly, families from cultures where classrooms embody the visible authority of the teacher and pedagogy stresses rote learning, found themselves ill at ease with progressive learning styles.

Third, although it is often thought that the critics were mostly of the loony right, it is less readily recognised that Plowden was immediately subject to academic criticism by the most influential education professors of their day. In a series of books, including the widely used Perspectives on Plowden, Professors Peters, Hirst, Dearden and Bernstein developed rigorous critiques of progressivism, including its apparent neglect of teaching, relative to its interest in learning. As chairs in primary education became established in the 1970s and 1980s, many of their occupiers have continued the tradition of questioning Plowden. The view that the educational establishment has been in a conspiracy to foist progressive teaching on to a profession of dupes simply does not hold up.

There is a more fundamental and depressing reason for Plowden's failure to influence practice. It was delivered in a climate where it was thought proper for education policy to be developed tentatively, with due respect for evidence and rational argument. It also conceptualised education as part of social and welfare policy. Poverty in the home, and the economic context of schooling, were seen as part of the problem facing the schools, and the report eschewed the easy option of blaming the victims of poverty - whether the pupils, the parents or their teachers. This liberal stance made the report appear both internally contradictory and rather wet.

In stark contrast to today's quangocracy, Plowden lacked the sense of certainty about what to do. It produced a set of recommendations, not arrogant prescriptions, because it saw the essentially problematic nature of policy in respect of primary education. In doing so, it rendered itself rejectable. If only policy makers today could be contaminated by such an attitude.

* Jim Campbell is professor ofeducation at Warwick university. Martin Merson is lecturer in education at Warwick university

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