Time to put the emphasis back on research
Plowden symbolised changes occurring at a time when government was beginning to think that research could enhance policy-making and practice. It attempted to complement and test hands-on knowledge of schools with research findings from child development, economics and sociology.
In retrospect, the challenge to practice could have been more forcibly exercised. But there was virtually no dissent within the committee on the principal thrust of the report, which was against force-feeding children with knowledge and techniques and in favour of recruiting children's own interest so that they become agents of their own learning. Plowden also argued that teachers must be highly skilled to support and frame that interest so that children become competent in the full range of intellectual and expressive skills.
The report has been bowdlerised by the clenched-teeth writers of the broadsheet press. It argued for rigour combined with respect for the individual capacity of children and the professionalism of teachers. It recorded the attempts of schools to induce humanistic methods into a stage of education emerging from mechanistic approaches to human development. It did not offer a doddle for the indulgent. If it had a fault, it over-estimated the capacity of teachers to pursue high ideals and standards within a society where counter-educational influences, including much of the media, were taking hold.
What kinds of knowledge did Plowden recruit? Its base line was what it learned from visits to the schools and local authorities, and evidence from Her Majesty's Inspectors and other educational experts. To the non-educational members, much of what the schools were doing came as a revelation. At that time, reading comprehension standards, as attested by recurrent National Foundation for Educational Research and HMI reviews, were improving at all measured stages. One HMI survey of schools showed that no more than a strong minority were of good standard. But all the evidence suggested that primary education was on an improvement curve.
The more important problems seemed to arise from the inequalities which the welfare state had not healed. If dire physical poverty was out, relative deprivation and the "new poverty" of parental attitudes were problems. They still dog the school system today, though teacher competence is pushed to the front line for critical attack.
Plowden accordingly backed an ambitious research programme which elucidated the weightings that should be given to parental attitudes, socio-economic factors and schooling in accounting for differences in children's achievement. Confirmation of the importance of parental attitudes led Plowden to recommend policies for parents. Evidence on unequal opportunities supported the proposals for educational priority areas. James Tanner's material on the biological bases of children's development supported the assumption that children have innate developmental propensities which can be affected by environments, including education.
Plowden was most vulnerable, perhaps, on the central issues of children's learning. It was criticised by Richard Peters, Basil Bernstein and others for sponsoring contemporary developmental theory. Research did not have authoritative constructs of children's learning that could challenge the knowledge of those who worked and observed children. When research showed, for example, that class size was weakly associated with performance, the committee followed its own view in arguing for reducing class sizes.
If Plowden was exceptional in commissioning and using research, it did, or perhaps could not use it to challenge the views of educationists. The evidence was overwhelming, both on the improvement of standards and on the most appropriate ways to educate children.
British government has never welcomed externally generated knowledge about education; it used to rely heavily on the practitioner-based wisdom of HMIs. The advisory council system, which included Plowden, could have incorporated more capacity for objective analysis over time, based on a systematic programme of continuing research. It did inform the schools on leading practice and opinion.
Now government may be able to rely on the findings of analyses provided by the Office for Standards in Education, or from research commissioned by itself, but there is no independent mechanism for using research or other knowledge to tackle critically the larger social or values issues.
The advisory councils died in 1966 because of the intention of Anthony Crosland, then Secretary of State for Education, to rely on other sources, and the ignorance of the Permanent Secretary of his time. They should be revived, but with a clearer membership base and with a remit to use research and the opinions of the wider community to set up the challenges to schools, local education authorities and ministers essential to an educated democracy.
* Maurice Kogan is director of the Centre for the Evaluation of Public Policy and Practice at Brunel University.