'Teachers must rediscover the optimism of progressive education'

In a bygone era, now nearly forgotten, the profession was a powerhouse for change in society

Colin Harris

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I'm speaking at a conference for young teachers this weekend. As someone who worked in schools for some 40 years there are so many things I could say to them, but the first and most important thing I will say is thank you for coming into our profession. 

God knows this is a sector that needs the enthusiasm and energy of new teachers.

As events such as these loom into view, invariably I am transported back in time to the 1970s when even this old dinosaur was new to teaching.

My how different things were back then. I believed – as did so many of my new colleagues – that we could and would change the world. There was a profound belief that what we were doing was important. 

People looked up to teachers and the profession was a powerhouse within society.

We were also heavily involved in what was then a passionate education debate at both local and national levels. Teaching was changing and we wanted to play a part in the shape of things to come. It may sound corny but it was an exciting time, pre-national curriculum and before the drive to school autonomy. Progressive education was on the rise.

Contrast that with today. Education debate plays little or no part in the lives of ordinary teachers. A select few have created a schools system more aligned to the 1950s than 2019, in which a perceived need for cloned individuals at the expense of creativity has prevailed.

Education has become regimented in both thought and action, and the reputation of the profession has slid into the area occupied by estate agents and politicians.

We need to rediscover the spirit of debate from my early days. Our fragmented education system could be so much better. Beyond the angry exchanges of Twitter, we need to publicly discuss curriculum, funding, workload and governance. 

We need to debate Ofsted, accountability, SEND and the dominance of data. We need a national conversation about teaching methods and pedagogy.

The list goes on. What about funding, or whether the curriculum is fit for purpose? Let's also debate the whole accountability regime, and the reliance on data. Let's not forget teaching methods and tackling the problems with SEND. I could of course carry on.

There has never been a more important time for our society to engage in education debate. We owe it to the pupils we teach every day.

When I talk to the young teachers at the conference this weekend, I may reflect that my generation hasn't been as successful at changing education as perhaps we would have liked.

But at least I can always try to influence the teachers of tomorrow…

Colin Harris led a school in a deprived area of Portsmouth for more than two decades. His last two Ofsted reports were "outstanding" across all categories

To read more of his articles, visit his back catalogue


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Colin Harris

Colin Harris

Colin Harris led a school in a deprived area of Portsmouth for more than two decades. His last two Ofsted reports were “outstanding” across all categories.

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