Plowden Report Revisited: Individuality, equality and discovery

24th January 1997 at 00:00
English primary education badly needs appreciating in two senses of the word - a favourable recognition of its achievements and a sensitive understanding and appraisal of its strengths and weaknesses; Children and their Primary Schools (the Plowden Report) provided both for in the Sixties. Its celebration of achievement may have been over the top, its appraisal may have been flawed in important respects, and the trends it identified may have failed to materialise, but it stands as a significant landmark in the history of primary education and one which inspired (or frustrated!) many primary teachers.

The Consultative Committee of the Board of Education in 1926 first officially recommended the establishment of primary and secondary education as two distinct stages to replace the notion of elementary education. It was the committee's second report in 1931 (The Primary School, known as the Hadow Report) that established a rationale for primary education and made recommendations on its curriculum, teaching, organisation and staffing based on what was known of children's physical and mental development. It viewed the curriculum in terms of "activity" and "experience", but also in terms of "knowledge to be acquired" and "facts to be stored". It acknowledged "the great and special virtues" of class teaching but pointed out that there were "limits to its flexibility and therefore its usefulness" because of the "varying needs of children or the natural movement of their minds". If the rest of philosophy can be regarded as footnotes to Plato, then in a very real sense Plowden provided the footnotes to Hadow, with its developmental emphasis and with its eclectic approach to curriculum and pedagogy.

In the intervening period, between the publication of the two reports, there were many significant events - not least a world war and, in education, a new Act (1944) which formally established primary education as a distinct stage in the English educational system. Post war, government's chief concerns for the new sector related to problems of teacher supply, "roofs over heads" for the fast-burgeoning population of young pupils and the replacement of "all-through" schools by primary and secondary provision (a process not completed until after the publication of Plowden).

In very many areas junior schools and the junior departments of newly established primary schools were in thrall to the selection examination at 11-plus. Those schools large enough to stream pupils by ability did so. For older primary pupils in particular, the developments advocated by the Hadow Report largely went unrealised; their curriculum remained dominated by the teaching of reading, writing, number and "intelligence" in preparation for the selection examination.

However, with younger children a long-established developmental tradition did increase its influence on practice after the Second World War. In many,though not all infant schools, the rigidities of the timetable were dispensed with; work related to centres of interest or topics was introduced; children were given more choice of activity and encouraged to take a measure of responsibility for their own learning; classrooms were reorganised along "informal" lines; more individual and small-group teaching took place; and there was an increasing emphasis on methods involving discovery, creativity and first-hand experience. Such approaches also began to affect junior-aged pupils in schools in a number of local education authorities such as Oxfordshire, the West Riding and Leicestershire. It was developments such as these that Plowden sought to publicise, celebrate and disseminate for the benefit of all pupils up to the age of 12 (its recommended age of transfer).

There are a number of important points to be made about the report. First and foremost it was a serious attempt "to consider primary education in all its aspects". It took more than three years to complete; it involved commissioning a great deal of research; it drew on a survey by HMI of all English primary schools; it called on oral or written evidence from a very wide range of interested parties; it also involved a small element of comparison with primary education overseas.

The Plowden committee amassed facts, canvassed opinions but was not afraid to make generalisations, judgments and recommendations on the basis of the evidence it had collected. The report provided a rich, detailed, comprehensive appreciation of a developing sector.

Allied to this was the principled approach adopted in the report. It made its underlying values very explicit: equality of opportunity, compensation for handicaps, respect for individuality and a commitment to the highest education standards" involving "special stress on individual discovery, on first-hand experience and on opportunities for creative work". It treated research findings with caution; it revealed the wide spectrum of opinion it solicited but was not frightened to make its stand in favour of the "developmental tradition". It asserted, rather too confidently as it turned out, that "the gloomy forebodings of the decline of knowledge which would follow progressive methods have been discredited".

But most amazing of all to the reader who revisits the report after 30 years was its positive, affirmative tone. Not only was the future of English society viewed optimistica lly, but teachers, schools and, above all, children were valued both for what they had achieved and what they could achieve in the future. The report praised rather than castigated, celebrated rather than derided, encouraged rather than carped. In a number of places its plaudits verged on the hyperbolica l and made many readers sceptical of the judgments of the committee and of the representativeness of the practice it characterised - "English primary education at its best .. . is very good indeed. Only rarely is it very bad. The average is good" (my italics).

Partly because of its very positive stance, the report was criticised by many practitioners (including me) for being far too utopian. With its composite vignettes of "good practice" and its inevitably selective use of illustrations to support its aspirations it presented a view of practice far removed from the reality of very many primary teachers toiling with classes of more than 40 in urban contexts, coping with the demands (and backlash) of the "11-plus" and very often still imbued with the attitudes, expectations and practices associated with the elementary school tradition.To many, Plowden's aspirations, both for them as teachers and for their pupils, appeared utterly remote and unrealistic. To use Sixties' language, it probably put off more teachers than it "turned on". In too many cases its advocacy of what it considered excellent practice militated against the generality of practice advancing towards what it would see as good.

One of its most appealing features, its purple prose, proved a mixed blessing since phrases taken out of context could be, and were, seized upon by its critics and its uncritical devotees. "The child is the agent in his own learning", the "danger sign" of "too much time spent on teaching" and the all-too-confident assertion that "finding out" has proved to be better for children than "being told" were seen by some as implying an abdication of the teacher's responsibility to teach. Both the critics and the zealots conveniently forgot other passages: "from the start there must be teaching as well as learning" or "we certainly do not deny the value of 'learning by description' or the need for practice of skills and consolidation of knowledge". The devil can quote scripture to suit his purposes; that was also true of both the antagonists and the protagonists of Plowden.

The effects of the report are difficult to summarise. For some teachers it provided, and still provides, a perennial source of inspiration - a view of what might be possible "in the best of all possible worlds". Its support for individuality and creativity led to some outstanding work by individual schools or teachers which demonstrated how untapped by conventional schooling is the potential of so many children. It provided powerful support for the abolition of selection (already gaining ground for other reasons) and it helped remove the widespread practice of streaming by ability and the inequalities and waste that system of internal organisation had wreaked. It transformed the physical layout of many schools and classrooms.

But it had other effects, too. The value it placed on the individual led, in too many schools, to an undue emphasis on individual learning, impossible to implement effectively in all but very small classes, and denying too many children sustained interaction with the teacher and other pupils. A minority of teachers did effectively abdicate their responsibilities for teaching. Too often more attention was paid to the niceties of classroom layout, display and learning environment and not enough attention to the content of the curriculum or the means by which it might be taught. The laissez-faire curriculum of the Seventies and early Eighties owed much to the lack of a clear lead from Plowden. Having said that, there was no significant "primary school revolution" along Plowden lines; the "quickening trend" it identified failed to materialise.

The publication of the Plowden Report in 1967 contributed to an exceptional context in which primary schools operated, albeit for a short time only. For a few years primary education was regarded by government as a particularly important stage in the educational system and primary teachers were made to feel valued and good about themselves and their profession. Those two conditions had not coincided before; they have not coincided since; they show no signs of coinciding in the future.

In retrospect it is clear that Plowden's optimism was misplaced, but far better that misplaced optimism than the misplaced pessimism that so weakens and demoralises primary education today.

Colin Richards is a former HMI,a professor of education and a consultant working in primary schools and higher education

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