'At the heart of the educational process lies the child'

24th January 1997 at 00:00
There was a clear message underpinning the 1967 report, says Diane Hofkins, despite the different slants put on it since.

If there was a golden age when children sat politely in rows memorising their tables and their phonics and standards were high, the Plowden committee did not see it. To its members, such methods represented stultifying bad practice, which left individuals foundering or unchallenged, uninspired and bored. If the "child-centred" litany was overemphasised, it was to spur on change from the drab old ways. "At the heart of the educational process," Plowden famously said, "lies the child." In other words, people learn through active engagement more readily than through being told.

At the heart of primary education today lie many ideas enshrined in Plowden which we now take for granted: the seriousness of play and the excitement of learning through experience; the value of creativity and real understanding rather than rote learning; the broad curriculum; the need to diagnose individual children's needs and give them suitable work; the enjoyment of school.

Plowden understood that what she was asking was difficult, and needed highly skilled teachers. The committee believed practice would be improved through in-service training, and called for a chunk of it for each teacher every five years. We will never know what impact this would have had, but this is the kind of teacher Plowden envisaged: "It needs teachers of great personal qualities, strong character and a deep understanding of children, and it also needs first rate organisation. If, for example, children are allowed choice in what they do, the choice must be genuine and the alternatives interesting and worth doing I time-wasting occupations and exercises to keep the children quiet while the teacher is busy ... are fatal to good discipline and to good learning and there is no place for them, or need for them, in the kind of school we are discussing."

Plowden warned against going to extremes, stressed the need for rigour, and did not eschew the teaching of facts. Yet, misunderstandings of the report led to hard-to-shift ideas in some schools, for instance the direct teaching of multiplication tables and grammar stifles creativity, that since "subjects" are meaningless to young children the curriculum must always be integrated, that "process" is more important than "outcome", that teachers must produce all their own materials and that children should never be told things. These ideas are, now, gradually changing.

It is easy to see how Plowden was misinterpreted, how the obvious messages about freedom, sympathy and discovery learning could be received without the underlying rigour or understanding of how to ensure children learned what they needed.

So what did Plowden say about teaching and curriculum? "Play," said the report, "is the central activity in all nursery schools and in many infant schools. This sometimes leads to accusations that children are wasting their time in school: they should be 'working'. But this distinction between work and play is false, possibly throughout life, certainly in the primary school ... We now know that play - in the sense of 'messing about' either with material objects or with other children, and of creating fantasies - is vital to children's learning ... It is the way through which children reconcile their inner lives with external reality. In play, children gradually develop concepts of causal relationships, the power to discriminate, to make judgments, to analyse and synthesise, to imagine and to formulate.

"From infancy, children investigate the material world. To destroy and construct involves learning the properties of things and, in this way, children can build up concepts of weight, height, size, volume andtexture."

In promoting activity-based learning, Plowden was endorsing ideas which had already been around for some time, and which were already being misunderstood: "The child is the agent in his own learning. This was the message of the often quoted comment from the 1931 (Hadow) Report: 'The curriculum is to be thought of in terms of activity and experience rather than of knowledge to be acquired and facts to be stored'. Read in isolation, the passage has sometimes been taken to imply that children could not learn from imaginative experience and that activity and experience did not lead to the acquisition of knowledge. The ...actual implication is almost the opposite of this. It is that activity and experience, both physical and mental, are often the best means of gaining knowledge and acquiring facts... We certainly would not wish to undervalue knowledge and facts, but facts are best retained when they are used and understood, when right attitudes to learning are created, when children learn to learn. Instruction in many primary schools continues to bewilder children because it outruns their experience."

The report noted with approval that "In many schools... children plan much of their work" but added the proviso that "the teacher must constantly ensure a balance within the day or week both for the class and for individuals." It advocated a combination of whole class, individual and group work, noting that while individual teaching is ideal, there is not enough time to devote to each child, so working with groups of similar ability is the next best thing.

The report talks about cross-curricular projects and topics, ideally chosen by the children, and dismisses a scheme of work that "sets down exactly what ground should be covered and what skill should be acquired by each class in the school". Schools should instead produce broad aims and sequences of progression and ideas for covering them. Here is the textual basis for so many teachers' conviction that the national curriculum would hamper spontaneity and ruin the ethos of primary education.

Children's writing should be based on their own interests, not silly imposed topics. "In all types of writing, children will need tactful help in conveying their meaning and in the craftsmanship of writing I Care should be taken not to discourage children, particularly the younger and the less able, by too much criticism ...Teachers should ... be at least as much concerned with the content as with the manner of what is said....Often the probing question is the best comment. Some "correction", if so inadequate a word must be used, should be directed towards inaccuracies, not so much the careless slips that everyone makes throughout life, as the repeated errors in sentence construction, in punctuation and in spelling which get in the way of communication. Similarly such techniques as paragraphing can be taught when it can be made clear to children that the technique will serve their purpose in writing. With the abler children, there is room for some concern about form and style so long as it does not make children self-conscious".

Meanwhile, Plowden could have been seen as soft on standards. "We have ... concluded that it is not possible to describe a standard of attainment that should be reached by all or most children. Any set standard would seriously limit the bright child and be impossibly high for the dull." However, some objective testing, used with "discrimination and insight" should be used within schools as a yardstick. In the wake of the divisive 11-plus the idea of too little testing must have been unimaginable.

By and large, Plowden tried to keep a balance. "We endorse the trend towards individual and active learning and 'learning by acquaintance', and should like many more schools to be more deeply influenced by it. Yet we certainly do not deny the value of 'learning by description' or the need for practice of skills and consolidation of knowledge." Teachers were responsible for ensuring that what children learned was worth learning. "From the start, there must be teaching as well as learning; children are not 'free' to develop interest or skills of which they have no knowledge. They must have guidance from their teachers."

These were the Plowden committee's top priorities: 1. Establishment of Educational Priority Areas, with extra funding, "to make schools in the most deprived areas as good as the best of the country".

2. Recruitment of teachers' aides. 3. Improvement of crumbling school buildings. 4. Big expansion of nursery education, starting as soon as possible. 5. Change the ages of school transfer to 8 and 12, establishing first and middle schools.

Other key recommendations

Junior schools should be unstreamed Parents should be allowed to choose their child's school wherever possible LEAs should formally inspect schools, not just advise Corporal punishment should be abolished, including in private schools Pupils should be offered a combination of individual, group and class work Primary schools should get a greater share of education budgets Teaching practice should be improved through INSET. Every teacher should have a substantial periodof in-service training at least every five years.

Health and welfare

* All children should be examined before starting school to determine their developmental and medical needs. Too many pupils arrive at school with an untreated illness.

Nursery education

* Should be available to children at any time after the beginning of the school year following their third birthday.

* There should be full-time provision for 15 per cent of the neediest pupils, part-time education for the rest.

* The education of children over three in day nurseries should be the responsibility of the education rather than the health departments.

* Ideally, all services for young children should be grouped together and placed near the children's homes and primary schools.

School transfer

* Once nursery schooling is available to all, the statutory starting age should be changed to the September term following the child's fifth birthday.

* The most suitable organisation of primary education is in separate first and middle schools, though combined schools may be necessary in rural areas.

* First schools should have a three-year course (ages 5-8), and middle schools a four-year course (ages 8-12).

* The demise of 11-plus selection is welcomed.

* Authorities who for an interim period continue to need selection procedures should cease to rely on externally imposed intelligence and attainment tests.

* There should be a variety of contacts between teachers in successive stages of education, including to discuss pupil records and avoid overlap.

* Primary schools should hear from secondary schools how their children compare over a period with children from other schools.

Organisation, staffing and teaching methods * "We endorse the trend towards individual and active learning and 'learning by acquaintance'."

* The class should remain the basic unit of school organisation, particularly for younger children. Even so, children sould have access to more than one teacher and teachers should work in close association.

* Experiments should be tried in associating two or three classes of the older children in the care of three teachers.

* Class sizes should be reduced. Classes for the youngest pupils should be the smallest. Teachers must be able to prescribe and provide for each child what he needs.

* More generous staffing should be given to schools with: large numbers of retarded children, immigrants or from deprived homes; exceptional inexperience or weakness among staff; experimental work; unusually inadequate accommodation; very large or very small schools.

* More men are needed in first schools.

* Part-time teachers should serve in well-staffed as well as under-staffed schools to release full-time teachers for more difficult work.

* One trained teachers' aide for every two infant and four junior classes.

* Parents and other members of the community should help in schools.

* Graded posts for teachers who supervise students and probationers and maintain contacts with colleges.

* "The unique freedom of the English schools is defensible only if teachers prove ready to meet the increasingly exacting demands made upon them. The three-year course is no more than a basis. In-service training provides the necessary superstructure."

* Rural schools with an age range of 5 to 11 should usually have at least three classes.

* Teachers in rural schools need help from advisers and advisory teachers, and opportunities for regular association with other teachers and schools.

Costs: * Increase spending by 17 per cent per child's education, or 2 per cent per child a year.

Disabled children

* Early and accurate identification from birth onwards is essential.

* A counselling service needed for parents.

* The term "slow learner" should replace "educationally subnormal".


"Evidence shows that most teachers are against the abolition of corporal punishment. Public opinion also appears to favour its retention. Nevertheless, corporal punishment in both maintained and independent primary schools should be forbidden because, among other things, it is ineffective in precisely those cases in which its use is most hotly defended.

"Discipline can only come from a relationship between teacher and child in which there is mutual respect and affection. As in so muchelse, primary schools should lead public opinion rather thanfollow it."

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