Educators back new progressivism

24th January 1997 at 00:00
Progressive, child-centred education is fighting back under a new banner. After a decade in which it has become de rigueur for people to admit ruefully that educating the "whole child" was a sweet, though now impractical Sixties idea, a new wave of interest in "emotional literacy" is gaining momentum.

This buzz-phrase is given some credibility by the interest being expressed by businesses. The latter have been struck by the simple notion that if employees are happy and relate well to colleagues, productivity is likely to be improved.

The burgeoning interest in emotional literacy was demonstrated last week by a well-attended conference on the subject held by Antidote, a new forum that promotes "deeper understanding of contemporary problems" as well as feelings.

Delegates were mainly teachers and educational psychologists. The presence of Tessa Jowell, Blairite MP for Dulwich, one of Antidote's founder members, might augur well for the future of these ideas under a Labour government.

Star speaker was the writer and psychologist Susie Orbach, most famous for her book Fat is a Feminist Issue. Her talk seemed to crystallise the views of most delegates.

She began by nostalgically recalling the ideals of the Sixties, when schools were "becoming a place in which children's curiosity could flourish, where hierarchies were questioned, where teachers' love of children was put towards creating co-operative classrooms in which the development of the whole child was seen to derive not from the rote ingestion of material but from an understanding of the child's developmental needs".

Now, said Ms Orbach, these ideas have been rubbished, educators have been insulted and the debate has been reduced to "the 3 Rs, uniform, selection, discipline, stiffer marking, and the minutes per day that should be spent on homework".

Whichever paper you read, she said, you would be given to understand that there was a consensus that progressive education had failed.

This assumption needs to be challenged, she argued. Progressive education did not succeed because it was never given a chance to bed down before the backlash began. She compared this to the backlash against feminism: "On the face of it, things look a lot better for women and girls, but the general climate is one in which New Man is derided, Laddishness is condoned and women are seen as spoilsports if they make arguments against being seen as sexual objects. "

In education, a child's emotional development tends to be seen as a desirable extra, to be squeezed into rare gaps in the curriculum, she said. The way a child develops emotionally has a crucial effect on his or her success, and ultimately on society. Morality should grow organically out of our regard for one another While most speakers concentrated on making the point that academic and emotional development are interdependent, there were some whose arguments tipped over into a disturbing tendency to disparage the role of academic learning.

The author John Raven, for instance, appeared to be arguing that we should destroy the education system and replace it with a "ferment of innovation". "Secondary schools are the least developmentally viable institutions in the world,," he said. "Children would be better off in McDonald's."

Ido van der Heijden, a lecturer in management, explained how interest in emotional literacy was catching on even in the City and other institutions that formerly promoted the stiff upper lip approach.

The companies apparently call in Mr van der Heijden when "victims of the public school system" are unable to sort out problems in the office. He offered an example of emotional illiteracy in an anecdote about an old Etonian asking a colleague, who happened to be Jewish, where he went to school. When the Jew explained he had spent his childhood in a concentration camp, the Etonian replied: "Oh, how interesting. Which one?"

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