‘Those who challenge the status quo often earn the hatred of those in power.’
Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind
Why are 7 million adults across generations illiterate in Britain? Why do we spend £89 billion on education and still have 21% innumeracy among school leavers? Why were 44 teachers hospitalised by pupils in 2010? Why do teacher training courses and textbooks contain so many references to Vygotsky, born in 1890s Russia under the reign of the Tsar? Why have 21% of UK pupils been diagnosed as SEN – five times the EU average? Why are there some regions where just 20% of poor pupils leave school with 5 GCSE’s, when in some regions, it is 80%?
Robert Peal’s book on the history of education chronicles how these puzzles came about.
History can enlighten us to the present by explaining the past. This book does exactly that: it exposes the predicaments of our schools by unearthing the origins and evolution of ideas in the education system.
The historical context
Andrew Old writes the foreword, and says: ‘Few publications can claim to be subversive, but that is a fitting description for what Robert Peal has written here. His arguments against the influence that progressive education has on our education system will challenge many of those in a position of authority.
‘Robert Peal is now making a unique and essential contribution to the education debate by providing the political and historical context of the arguments.
‘This is essential reading: for some, a shock; for others, a call for subversion.’
The crux of the book is this: the neglect of strict discipline and knowledge-led instruction has resulted in persistent underachievement in English schools.
Disruption and the neglect of discipline
In 1967, Plowden Report cast doubt on the idea that strict discipline and sanctions worked. According to a survey by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate, 68% of schools were rated average, good or very good on the desired feature of ‘permissive discipline’.
By 1977, £15 million of damage a year was being done to British schools. Teacher turnover was 33% a year in London primary schools. In an emblematic example, William Tyndale school was set up with no effort to enforce discipline – derided as ‘social control’ – at all. Bullying, abuse of staff and even stone-throwing was commonplace. One pupil climbed onto the roof and hurled glass milk bottles at infant pupils below. The head’s response was to get milk delivered in cartons instead. Parents removed children, and the roll fell from 230 in 1973 to 63 when it closed in 1975.
Between 1972 and 1980, a survey on discipline was conducted that showed the gap between academic educationists and the public. 99% of parents, 91% of pupils but only 34% of academic educationists agreed with sanctions to back up rules. 99% of parents, 90% of pupils but only 24% of academic educationists thought discipline not adequately enforced in schools. Academics training teachers taught them discipline didn’t matter.
By 1985, 80% of teachers said violence and disruption were commonplace. In 1987, 94% of teachers said indiscipline was on the increase. In 1988, 68% of pupils said bullying was a problem.
In 2010, a supply teacher wrote an account of inner-city schools. He’d witnessed a pupil stabbed in Nottingham, vodka in lesson in Birmingham, weed in lessons in Sheffield, and teachers told to ‘fuck off’ by pupils everywhere. A short-term contract teacher wrote in 2001 that she had dog mess put in her bag, and saw teacher get a black eye from a kid.
By 2011, OFSTED rated behaviour as good or outstanding in 70% of secondary schools. But only 20% of teachers thought behaviour in the schools was good. Teachers stopped teaching and went on strike in Lancashire against persistent indiscipline: pupils were challenging teachers to fights. In June, OFSTED rated behaviour in the school as good.
Surveys told a different story. In 2010, 80% of teachers said their teaching was harmed by pupils’ poor behavior, and 92% said behaviour had worsened over their career. In 2011, 40% reported being bullied by pupils. In 2010, 44 teachers were hospitalized due to pupil attacks. A 2011 survey revealed that over half of teachers were thinking of quitting, with misbehaviour one of the two most common reasons cited.
Permissive discipline had resulted in prevalent, persistent disruption and low teacher retention.
Underachievement and the neglect of knowledge-led instruction
In 1971, the year Michael Young published ‘Knowledge and Social Control’, Ivan Illich published ‘Deschooling Society’. They became staples of teacher training reading lists. By 1974, a headteacher said teaching recruits ‘come out of college with Knowledge and Control in the bloodstream’.
By 1991, 62% in Germany, 66% in France, but just 27% in England were gaining 3 good GCSEs (or international equivalent) in Maths, Science and the national language.
In 1989, HMI inspected KEGS Stratford, and criticised them for their traditional teaching methods. In 1992, OFSTED was set up to raise standards and prevent prejudice from harming schools.
But by 2000, OFSTED were actively promoting these orthodoxies. In 2001, Chief Inspector Chris Woodhead resigned, saying ‘my single biggest doubt about Ofsted stems from the fact that some inspectors are unwilling or unable to jettison their progressive educational views.’ From 2006 to 2014, teacher blogger Andrew Smith has chronicled how ‘OFSTED remains the steadfast enforcer of the orthodoxies of progressive education’. From 2010 to 2013, of 228 lessons, child-centred teaching methods were praised, while teacher-led knowledge-based lessons were criticised. OFSTED inspection judgements are based not on the academic success of a school, but on progressive prejudices held by the inspectors.
Knowledge-led teaching was derided by the educational establishment in the first decade of the 21st century. In 2006, teaching union ATL stated: ‘a 21st century cannot have the transfer of knowledge at its core’. In 2007, Mick Waters, head of QCA and national curriculum reform, said that subject content was ‘not vital.’ Academic Guy Claxton said ‘knowledge is changing so fast that we cannot give young people what they need to know, because we do not know what that will be.’ In 2009, in Knowsley, Merseyside, £157 million was spent on 7 schools who would not teach knowledge, as children ‘can now sit on Google’. Only 41% of the pupils in one of them secured 5 good GCSEs.
Claims that progressive education would produce ‘best educated generation in our nation’s history’ had proved unfounded. By 2010, without BTECH equivalencies, just 56% achieved 5Cs or better. Almost half the country was not getting 5 good GCSEs.
The neglect of knowledge-led instruction had resulted in national underachievement.
A corrective shift
The book concludes: ‘The underlying philosophy of our schools needs to change. A corrective shift towards traditionalist modes of education is needed. It is high time we freed our schools from this burden of bad ideas.’
Optimism, though, is the striking end-note of the book. ‘Teachers with fresh ideas now have the freedom to design alternatives to the status quo.’
For the educational establishment, this book will be a shock, and the reaction will be defensive. For reform-minded teachers, this book is a call to action, and the response will be sanguine: discipline and knowledge can improve academic achievement.
Robert Peal’s book exposes the history of fundamentally flawed ideas – that strict discipline and rich knowledge are oppressive – and their enduring legacy of educational underachievement.