Lady Plowden has been wrongly accused of causing education's ills, says Maurice Kogan, secretary to the ground-breaking committee she chaired
FOR all those budding policy-makers out there yearning for the chance to stamp their mark on the nation's schools, the experience of the Plowden committee is both an inspiration and a warning.
Bridget Plowden was propelled into public life when the then minister, Edward Boyle, asked her to chair the Central Advisory Council for Education's inquiry into primary education and the transition to secondary education.
Her appointment was serendipitous. One day Boyle simply announced that he had sat next to Lady Plowden at dinner and she would be chair. Her experience of public policy was limited though her husband was a former chief economic planner and renowned chairman of public commissions.
The choice proved to be brilliantly intuitive. She possessed clear and independent judgment, an ability to cut through the specious and unworkable, with deep reserves of energy and an ability to work with all kinds of people.
In the 1960s, government seemed willing to have education policy examined by a wide range of experts without setting a priority for them. The difference now is that the questions to be tackled are largely closed rather than open.
Plowden came at a time before the post-war political consensus had broken up. Comprehensive education was edging forward, the local authorities were trusted partners - a trust earned by enormous advances in educability (a 12-fold growth in O-level passes since 1945). The loony left were still at revolutionary play school and had not yet come to wreak havoc in local government. Plowden was thus able to face difficult issues in relative calm.
But even the Government was largely incapable of accepting external, commission-style advice. This reluctance has barely changed since. If anything, ministers now seem to rely more on internal advisers who are recruited to implement politically-led policies. Advisory council reports - such Lady Plowden's - have had most effect if government already intended to move towards what they were likely to legitimise.
During the past few years, the Dearing and the Fryer reports, although within the government's values zone, have not been systematically taken up.
Instead, government recruits and feeds on its own thinking.
The government did not await Plowden with open arms and some of her recommendations were construed quite differently by policy-makers. In 1972, during her stint as eucation secretary, Margaret Thatcher supported an expansion of nursery education but not in ways proposed by Plowden.
Flexibility in the age of transfer was legislated before the council reported. One of Thatcher's predecessors, Anthony Crosland played with education priority areas but without much heed to the report.
In general, Crosland was laconic about it. The permanent secretary of the time revealed to a select committee that he had not grasped the committee's terms of reference or modes of operation. External committees in general went out of favour for a long time.
The Plowden committee contained leading "non-educational" intellectuals - AJ Ayer, David Donnison, Tim Raison, Ian Byatt, James Tanner - who, with the possible exception of Ayer, were impressed by the creativity and humanism of what they saw. What was happening in a strong minority of schools contrasted with the grimness of pre and immediate postwar education. The evidence was of astonishing improvements, for example in reading comprehension, as recorded by the National Foundational for Educational Research.
Plowden's effects were indirect and percolative. The report documented good practice which must have made it invaluable to many teachers. The sales were large. It was taken up by those eager for reform of the appalling United States city schools.
It did not advocate children following their own bent in undisciplined play, but eclectic approaches reinforced by learning related to children's interests. It could have put greater emphasis on the need for more structured approaches to bodies of skills and knowledge. But to mistake its emphasis for an abdication from adult leadership in teaching is wrong and unfair.
If there is a problem of standards now, it is because teachers fight uphill battles not against progressive doctrines but the dispiriting effects of governmental direction and the weakening of local support systems.
They have to contend with an educationally mindless society in which low-level music drives out silent thought, the popular press puts up false images of success, and political leadership enforces external pressures on schools.
Lady Plowden would have no time for a soft version of education. The liberal humanism of Plowden was not the cause of declining standards but one of its principal victims.
Maurice Kogan is professor emeritus of government and the director of the centre for the evaluation of public policy and practice, Brunel University. He was secretary to the Plowden committee