Which side are you on?

17th March 2006 at 00:00
It's the oldest debate in town: progressive versus traditionalist. But, as Gerald Haigh finds, the lines aren't always clearly drawn

Worlds Apart

By David Gribble Libertarian Education, distributed by Central Books, Pounds 8.95, www.libed.org.uk

A headteacher friend of mine once told me: "The trouble is, one day I'm Rhodes Boyson, the next I'm AS Neill."

Before he became a Tory MP and education minister in Margaret Thatcher's first cabinet, Dr Rhodes Boyson was the high-profile head of Highbury Grove school in London. He was a fierce advocate of uniforms and corporal punishment, and once said: "Children are not born good. They have to be disciplined, otherwise they are a threat to society."

AS Neill, by contrast, was the founder of Summerhill school in Suffolk, a democratic institution where there is no uniform, lessons are voluntary, and decisions are made by the whole community. In his 1975 book, Summerhill, Neill wrote: "Most of the schoolwork that adolescents do is simply a waste of time, of energy, of patience. It robs youth of its right to play and play and play; it puts old heads on young shoulders."

There you have it. The confrontation, polarisation, clash of cultures - call it what you will - that has characterised, and perhaps bedevilled, education throughout the history of organised schooling. Neill founded Summerhill in 1921; the Boyson quote dates from 1968. So it isn't an argument that's ever going to go away. It plays out in all sorts of ways.

Last week's Education Show featured a debate between the former chief inspector of schools, Chris Woodhead, and the creativity guru, Sir Ken Robinson, titled "Curriculum versus Creativity". It wasn't quite Neill versus Boyson, but the essence of the argument was the same.

As with most such differences of opinion, most of what you read or hear about the debate comes from one side or the other. And, as you'd expect, neither side is all that interested in balance and fairness. The title of this book, Worlds Apart, is a precise description not just of objective reality but of the way the two philosophies see themselves. If you're a progressive, then the traditionalists are hard-faced Gradgrinds, intent on forcing children to jump through meaningless pedagogic hoops. If you're a traditionalist, progressives are dangerously naive softies, unforgivably allowing children to emerge from school ill-equipped to deal with the rigours of adult life.

In fact, it's rarely that clear-cut. After all, every school, every teacher, agrees on what they're trying to do. As David Gribble writes in his introduction: "It must not be forgotten that even the strictest of authoritarian schools and even the most informal of free schools have this one fundamental aim in common: to do the best they can for the children who attend them."

That's a big area of agreement. The differences, though, are clearly there, and Gribble allows them to speak for themselves. To this end, he takes two sets of evidence - excerpts from "official documents" (prospectuses, school websites and other school-level sources), and a selection of quotations from pupils - which he divides into "traditional" and "progressive"

material. On each double-page spread in the book, the traditional quotes are on the left and the progressive on the right, so you can read straight across to make comparisons under themed headings.

For example, under "Start of the Day" we read, on the left, about the routine for a traditionally organised comprehensive, which includes: "The first thing you do when you get inside is to go to your tutor room and wait until the teacher arrives and does the register." Over on the right, we hear from a pupil in a progressive school: "The first thing I usually do is go to the kitchen and make myself a mug of coffee to take to my first lesson, but there are always rather too many people in there and sometimes it isn't worth the hassle."

All the schools are real. The selection of "traditionals" comprises a number of state and fee-paying day and boarding schools, including Harrow, Radley, Uppingham, and comprehensives from around the country. On the progressive side stand Sands school, a democratically run secondary day school in Devon, and Summerhill. What makes the book fascinating are the thoughtful insights from pupils. Here's a "progressive" pupil on freedom of choice: "Most people do six or seven GCSEs, but some people only do one or two, and very occasionally there is someone, usually a pretty bright and determined person, who doesn't do any."

A little further on, a pupil from the same school writes: "There's a risk that you might not learn to appreciate something because you never had the initiative to try it." Can't you just hear Rhodes Boyson saying:


Sometimes it's the simple things that make you stop and smile. In the progressive school, "lessons start at 9.45. A few years ago they were supposed to start at 9.30, but everyone was always late."

And in the traditional school? "Lessons are supposed to start at 9.30, but they hardly ever do, because assembly goes on for too long, or the staff stay behind to discuss something."

David Gribble - an advocate of democratic education and a founder of the Libertarian Education publisher and campaigning group - clearly feels that by calmly presenting both sides, he can allow the progressive case to emerge under its own power, in a way that won't cause traditionalist hackles to rise. He's so fair, in fact, that as he himself acknowledges:

"Traditional thinkers may find their opinions reinforced."

It can certainly work like that. I once showed a visitor round what I thought was a happy, bright, active school, only to find that he saw it as anarchic and the pupils as badly behaved. In the end, though, maybe the most powerful evidence on the progressive side is actually to be read on the left-hand pages, in the excerpts from traditionalist prospectuses, written in language that somehow has a whiff of Orwell about it. For example: "The most important opportunity at our school is the opportunity to succeed. All lessons are compulsory."

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