The ideological debate that spanned a century;Primary education;Millennium Edition

31st December 1999 at 00:00
One of the constant features of primary schooling during the 20th century has been the progressive v traditional debate.

Many now think that the term "progressive education" was coined around the time of the Plowden Report of 1967, but it is much older than that. It entered the English language via an 1839 translation of Madame Necker de Saussure's classic work L'education progressive and was already being used as a term of abuse by the beginning of the 20th century.

In 1910 GK Chesterton commented that George Bernard Shaw's disregard for convention arose from "that progressive education of his". The following quotations give some impression of how the argument has developed during the century.


The high function of the teacher is to prepare the child for the life of a good citizen, to create or foster the aptitude for work and for the intelligent use of leisure. The only uniformity of practice the Board wishes to see is that all teachers should think for themselves and adapt the curriculum to the needs of the children in their charge. Board of Education, 1905

A new light has appeared in the educational world. The remarkable advance made by Dr Maria Montessori is one of the greatest in the history of educational progress ... the dominating fact in education is the need for the teacher to rely on the spontaneous tendencies of the pupil.

No one had ever dreamed of limiting the intervention of the teacher to the same extent.

Professor E P Culverwell, 1913

Curriculum is not an attractive word ... in the field of primary education we are becoming increasingly doubtful whether "what we do in school" can be conveniently described in terms of subjects, since it has become increasingly clear that for young children "subjects" have little significance. Christian Schiller 1958

"Finding out" has proved to be better for children than "being told". Children's capacity to create in words, pictorially and through many other forms of expression, is astonishing.

The third of the three Rs is no longer mere mechanical arithmetic, French has made its way into the primary school, nature study is becoming science.

There has been dramatic and continuing advance in standards of reading. The gloomy forebodings of the decline of knowledge which would follow progressive methods have been discredited. Plowden Report, 1967, paragraph 1233

We were trying to create a small Utopia in Islington. I had the view that it was possible for small groups to fundamentally change the ways of society. Brian Haddow, a teacher at William Tyndale school, the ultra-progressive Islington junior school that was the subject of the 1976 Auld Report


The Montessori system was the greatest bit of rubbish ever invented and he could only regard it as sickly sentimentality run mad. The Rev W J Sommerville, of the London School Board, quoted in The Times, December 12, 1912 A visit to the local tram sheds is nowadays regarded as an educationally desirable venture; the study of poetry, indeed any form of book study, seems to be regarded with increasing hostility. Geoffrey Bantock, 1952 Compulsory education is a farce and morally indefensible unless all schools cover the same basic syllabus ... The infant school - from five to seven years - should concentrate all its activities on basic schooling - reading, writing and number ... Again from seven to 11 in the junior school, the emphasis should be on developing English ability and number work. These are the foundations of all future study and, like Solomon's wisdom, if these are attained, all other things will be added to them. Rhodes Boyson in The TES, October 17, 1975 The first thing that Ellis (Terry Ellis, headteacher of William Tyndale school, Islington) did was to close down the remedial reading department. He said: "Didn't you know that in the Middle Ages they built cathedrals and they couldn't read or write?" They had this "Let's man the barricades" attitude but of course what happened in the school, tragically for the children, (was that) it became a Lord of the Flies situation. Dolly Walker, teacher at William Tyndale school, interviewed for Ian Hislop's School Rules in 1997 Over the last few decades the progress of primary pupils has been hampered by the influence of highly questionable dogmas which led to excessively complex classroom practices and devalued the place of subjects in the curriculum. The resistance to subjects at the primary stage is no longer tenable. The subject is a necessary feature of the modern primary curiculum.

Alexander, Rose and Woodhead, Curriculum Organisation and Classroom Practice in Primary Schools, DES, 1992

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