Editorial: a golden age when Utopia was a possibility

24th January 1997 at 00:00
This issue of Primary Update marks and, dare we say it, celebrates the 30th anniversary of the Plowden Report on primary education. The power of the report, which promoted "child-centred" learning, where "finding out" proved better for children than "being told", is that after so long it remains an icon for both disciples and opponents. Reading Plowden today can induce a longing for that lost golden age in Britain, one that probably never existed, where there was such a thing as society, and everyone believed in pulling together to solve the ills of poverty, inequality and boring primary schools.

In its sparkling optimism, and touching belief in social engineering, Plowden was very much of its time. The Government-appointed committee thought the well-off suburbs should send their best teachers into the inner cities to help build a better future for the urban poor and that colleges of education should form special links with these needy schools. Its top priority was extra funding, teachers and support for deprived areas (see page 15).

Its ideas were infused with idealism. In eloquent prose, the report sets out its ideal: "The school sets out deliberately to devise the right environment for children, to allow them to be themselves and to develop in the way and at the pace appropriate to them. It tries to equalise opportunities and to compensate for handicaps. It lays special stress on individual discovery, on first-hand experience and on opportunities for creative work. A child brought up in such an atmosphere ... has some hope of becoming a balanced and mature adult and of being able to live in, to contribute to, and to look critically at the society of which he forms a part."

This society would be marked by rapid and far-reaching economic and social change. "About such a society we can be both hopeful and fearful. We can hope it will care for all its members ... and that it will create an environment which is stimulating, honest and tolerant. We can fear that it will be much engrossed with the pursuit of material wealth, too hostile to minorities, too dominated by mass opinion and too uncertain of its values." If many of Plowden's hopes and its faith in society's institutions were misplaced, its fears were not.

Plowden's optimism and belief in the power of schools and society to make a difference contrasts sharply with the depressed and disillusioned responses of teachers to this month's TES survey of the profession (see the TES 10 and 17 January). "The voice of the teaching profession at the end of 1996 is cynical, pessimistic and profoundly weary", we wrote. Teachers are feeling ineffectual, undermined by decaying buildings and falling status; "teacher-bashing" by both Labour and Conservative has destroyed their faith in political change. Nearly all the top priorities drawn up by teachers in TES focus groups are needs identified by Plowden: more investment in schools, limiting class sizes to 30, a nursery place for all four-year-olds, steps to raise teachers' status, and a programme to tackle crumbling schools.

Ever since its publicatio n, Plowden's "progressive" ideas have been condemned by traditionalists, most famously in the Black Papers, later by Ministers. When the former Secretary of State for Education, Kenneth Clarke, declared that the Plowden report was buried, he was wrong, of course. For one thing, Conservative ministers adopted many of its ideas about parental rights and the need for more inspection (see Ted Wragg, page 18). But the Three Wise Men's report on primary organisation and practice, five years old this month, which Kenneth Clarke commissioned, did help give the pendulum a nudge back to more "traditional" ways. It warned against "mindless orthodoxy", urging "fitness for purpose": the method should suit the task at hand. Some said the change was already happening. Certainly, the national curriculum and tests forced a swing toward more subject-orientated and concrete teaching; so has the growing clamour from all sides for higher standards, and government's determination to have a say in the way teachers teach.

Now there is pressure for more subject teaching, more streaming, more whole-class teaching. The latest initiative, the National Literacy and Numeracy Project, goes almost as far as possible, insisting that teachers in participating schools spend up to an hour a day in direct teaching of only English or maths, from a minutely detailed syllabus.

Despite all this, Plowden is still imprinted on the hearts of many teachers, who have carried its ideas successfull y through the decades of change (see pages 6-7). The report still has much to offer, and that is why it is time for another serious look at Plowden. Teachers are less defensive and more flexible than they were five years ago. The pendulum may have swung too far, and it is time for another nudge. Teachers need something to inspire them, and could do far worse than Plowden's messages about

co-operation, trust and the value of the individual.

Diane Hofkins, Primary Editor

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