E D Hirsch completed his British tour with a talk at Hewett Academy, Norwich, hosted by the Inspiration Education Trust, which had arranged the trip.  He summed up three errors that he sees as lying at the heart of progressivism in his Cambridge talk:

  • hyper-individualism, which “penalises the student and places impossible demands on the teacher”
  • skill centrism – an emphasis on general rather than specific thinking skills
  • developmentalism, the religious/Romantic idea that each child’s learning unfolds in a natural process.

All three have been prevalent in British education for over half a century. The biggest example is  the Plowden Report, which remains a touchstone of the Left, notably of Professor Robin Alexander and his Cambridge Primary Review.  Plowden insisted on mixed ability teaching combined with individualised learning, which led one authoritarian infant inspector I knew to demand of a group of teachers, “Are you sure that what you are doing is spot-on for every child in the class?” as if they should all resign if this was not the case.

“Critical thinking skills,” suggested by John Dewey as a unifying force that would prevent chaos in the curriculum, is typified by the former Schools Council’s work under Richard Pring. The worst example, the Humanities Project, had the teacher pick a controversial topic, lead a discussion on it, and use this as a basis for investigation. It does not take much imagination to see where this might lead in a modern classroom in Birmingham or London.

Dewey at one point said that he “did not wish to be promoting ignorance”,  but we’ve seen plenty of evidence that this is exactly what his approach led to. Recent examples from Educating Cardiff include the notorious idea that Switzerland is in New Zealand, and teachers having to teach multiplication tables to twelve – and thirteen-year-olds because no-one has taken the trouble to do this in primary schools. I’ve been told by 11 year olds that the Battle of Hastings was won by Nelson (Mandela)’s men, and by slightly younger children that the Duke of Wellington had had his head cut off by the French, and that the ancient Romans invented pizza.

Developmentalism, at the heart of Steiner schools through their founder’s inspiration from Goethe, is also the basis of the attack on traditional English teaching by the National Association for the Teaching of English, and of the approach to modern languages teaching that supposes that children will learn naturally as a result of “exposure ” to the new language.  The Football Association’s refusal to understand that Mr Mourinho’s  “Filha de puta,” insult  to his club doctor, could only have been directed at a female person, is perhaps a consequence of this haphazard approach to language learning.  If they need a better linguist, I suggest they employ the services of Mr Arsene Wenger.

The government’s alternative, developed during the coalition period and in the process of introduction following the curriculum and examination reforms, is directly in line with Dr Hirsch’s alternative to progressivism. First, children need to know the new language, its vocabulary, its grammatical structures, and how native speakers use these. This knowledge is acquired by study, and its application in understanding and using the spoken and written language is an example of what Dr Hirsch calls “expertise” – specific skills and abilities that grow out of knowledge and depend on it.  Some skills, notably in the field of literacy, are essential to learning anything, but most are required by specific “domains” –  subjects – and are not immediately transferred to others.

I asked Dr Hirsch what needed to be done to show that his – our – alternative worked better than the progressive approach it sought to replace. He replied that this had been demonstrated many times, and I would see the success of the phonics initiative and the example of geometry teaching I cited two weeks ago as cases in point. There is, though, is an important middle ground of teachers and headteachers who are not out and out progressives, but who are not yet convinced that our approach is right. We do not yet have evidence to win the argument.

Finally, after a series of articles critical of Ofsted, I recommend their report on Barrowford Primary School, Lancashire, whose headteacher made headlines last year with a letter to pupils informing them that there was more to life than test results. The school attracted sympathy in the usual quarters as its previous report had been good, and it had had a high turnover of staff.

The report, however, has clear evidence for its conclusion that it was giving priority to children’s social development at the expense of their work, and that management was not taking enough care over the induction of new staff. The school has just one book for the whole of each child’s written work, a strange idea that makes it more difficult to track progress in subjects. Mixed ability makes maths teaching difficult , despite “pockets” of good work  – “Some staff told inspectors they struggle to find sufficient materials suitable for the wide range of ability in their classes.”   Worst, though, was a comment from “some pupils” – not just one – that “no-one minds if we don’t do our best work.”