A New Primary Teacher Writes…

August 8, 2014

This was a comment somebody left on my last post, but I thought it deserved to be a post in its own right.


I’ve been following your posts having switched from a career in accountancy to primary teaching. This is the first time I am piping up with an opinion.

My training has been pretty much a cult-like initiation process into progressive teaching, however, my academic background (scientific/mathematical) has led me to question everything I am expected to do/believe. In order to avoid a even longer post, I can simply state that I agree with everything described in the book ‘Progressively Worse’.

As a rare logical-rational type in a primary school setting I have also come to question the orthodoxy ‘Children must (and can only) learn through play’. I firmly believe that the some of the behaviour issues that secondary teachers must endure have their roots in play-based primary education. That old adage ‘Bring me the boy of 7 and I will give you the man’ is so acutely true when I observe how increasingly difficult it is to teach year 5 and 6 children who have been left to do whatever they like, in the name of ‘play-based learning’.

Essentially, I think two rather odd myths collide. The first is the myth ‘out there’ that all children are subjected to some kind of Gradgrindian school experience. This, coupled with the child-led parenting approach, has led to children being given free reign outside of school to do whatever they like. No controls, no structure, no discipline. Just do whatever you like and ‘Be free to discover yourself by having bad manners and playing violent video games until 1am’.

The second myth, which exists in the world of state education, is that all ‘working class’ children are subjected to some kind of Gradgrindian home experience. This, coupled with the child-centred teaching approach, has led to children being given free reign inside of school to do whatever they like. No controls, no structure, no discipline. Just do whatever you like and ‘Be free to never discover long division, so long as your self-esteem is enormous and you really enjoy Art’.

I fail to see how the answer to lack of parenting, that would otherwise install self-control in a child, is a play-based classroom that has no structure and no discipline. Surely this would re-inforce bad behaviour? Such bad behaviour in the infant classes tends to be excused as ‘They’re only cute and cheeky little children’ by teachers who have adopted a motherly approach. By the time they enter junior school, complete with an inability to read, it is too late and the bad behaviour is no longer cute, cheeky or indeed funny. This behaviour is annoying, tiring and increasingly dangerous at a time when you are trying to prepare them for SATs and being able to access secondary education. You can turn things around, by being strict, but this is not advised………

By the time these badly behaved children enter secondary school, complete with their inability to read, write or add up, it is too late. When children enter puberty they cease to want to take advice from adults and instead follow their peers. That window for an honest message about the rewards of self-discipline and hard work, and how it is the single most important thing that can transform your life, closed back in Year 6, because primary teachers believe that children should live in a bubble of self-centred happiness.

Apparently children miraculously grow-up in the 6 week holiday between junior school and the secondary school? No I don’t think so.

I have begun to question why everyone thinks that the Victorian classroom was so inherently cruel (although we can all agree that The Cane was). These days I think that possibly those Victorian teachers steeled themselves in order to do the right thing, because they saw the home conditions of the children they taught, and knew that basic education was too important for children to fail.

Children these days are just not being taught to sit still, listen and be quiet. That basic, numero-uno most important skill for learning either never installed, or, if the child is from a home where the skill has been taught by decent parents, driven out by play-based learning in the infant classes.

The whole ‘Let children learn through play’ thing seems to come from a place of misplaced kindness, whereby adults just do not want children to experience any kind of struggle, or work, or inconvenience. It is a very emotional interpretation, and emotive types seem to dominate in primary education.

When I look at a child, I see, from my previous experience, the young working-class woman in my office who is facing a bleak career because she hasn’t been taught the basics, including the self-discipline to turn up to work on time. There is no safety net for her: government benefits are severely restricted for young people, and her parents cannot afford to support her indefinitely. I am busy reporting to clients and management, so cannot teach her basic grammar! Where is the happiness when, at the age of 16 and at the end of her apprentice probation, we do not keep her on?



  1. I don’t recognise this in any classroom I worked in from the late 70’s onwards but hey – let’s put it in high relief on a widely read blog shall we?

    It’s full of conjecture, unsubstantiated opinion and let’s face it – certain givens that point to a causation – the “notorious” ‘ badly behaved children’ from a pretty dodgy factual basis. But we must let the – once again – anonymous poster be heard. Their, “I’ve seen this happen through my refractive lens so it must be so.” doesn’t impress me and to give over a blog to it has me a bit bemused.

    “Children must (and can only) learn through play” < Really – goodness where have I been in the last 25 years?

    'It is a very emotional interpretation, and emotive types seem to dominate in primary education." Ah yes – such a scientific/ mathematical approach.

    All that "motherliness" must lead to bad behaviour. Actually the motherliness I have witnessed in my time was rather fierce and determined that children knuckle down and do as they were told.

    But hey it must all be true for all cases mustn't it and we have to disseminate that as fact.

    • I see no reason to doubt this person’s account. The comments on ideology seem consistent with the views publicly expressed by educationalists and for that matter, a lot of primary types in the blogosphere. This is an argument that needs to be had, and your response is the sort of thing I used to be told back in the days when my views were classed as beyond the pale, even on things that now I’m told nobody really disagrees with.

      • My response has got absolutely nothing to do with what you were told. There doesn’t seem to be an argument as far as I can see unless people push to make one out of opinion which will not get anyone anywhere.

    • By all means disagree with the opinion. But don’t contest the voicing of an opinion if you are going to do so by contending the opinion itself – with your own opinion! I’m referring to your views of motherliness and schools in the last 25 years.

      • The majority of posters from The majority of prmary teachers on Twitter do not seem to recognise this analysis or even scenario even – it doesn’t mean that the poster doesn’t have any credence but, in my opinion or that the majority of primary teachers as a whole recognise this one way or the other. In my view, however, the poster appears to have a limited scope to draw on for their inferences.
        As I said above we can all have opinions. I’d venture I have had a wider experience of more classrooms in my time (I may not) and I certainly still wouldn’t be as resolute about what determines what in a primary school in these contexts.
        The whole notion that there is a blanket approach to behaviour in primary school based on the “qualities” of primary school teachers seems absurd to me and doesn’t seem to be chiming very well practitioners themselves at the moment, but. indeed that may not be the case. At least I can verify who they are and so balance their professed opinions against the realities of them working in the profession.
        If you want to abstract a “debate” around this from the various contexts then do it with some propositions that don’t include attacks on the profession’s supposed qualities determining competences – you’ll only then get counter narratives. Whether you consider those narratives to be true or not is another matter but it will matter in the teaching community as a whole otherwise it comes down to black propaganda and not reasoned debate.

        • I think it’s fair that you object to the criticism of ‘motherliness’ as it criticises a supposed personal qualitiy of some teachers. When I read it, however, it translates to me as: excuses being made for poor behaviour throughout school and children often not having to face consequences for their actions (which I recall from my education) – all this occurring as a result of well-intentioned actions by teachers who generally want the best for people in their class. [I remember in primary school (several years ago now) classmates had to be verbally warned twice and their names written in several different coloured inks on the board (all being reset at the end of a lesson) before actually losing a break time.] Perhaps I have misinterpreted ‘motherliness’, and yes, fair enough, perhaps the poster should be clearer – but my point is that it is not inconceivable that the poster’s criticisms of qualities are actually criticisms of actions – which I think are acceptably open to debate.
          And perhaps in the future ‘data-driven’ world, it may be less difficult to track a child’s behaviour through schools and pick up on the primary-secondary transition effect which I think the poster is spot-on about.

          • That is an incredibly ‘coloured’ and convoluted proxy then. I doubt very much that ‘data’ will solve behaviour issues – people and institutions do that and have done for decades. Schools with institutionally-wide effectively enforced policies on behaviour that are acted upon consistently in the management chain with excellent communication upwards as well as down through good CPD are usually the most efficient in that respect I would have thought. It has absolutely nothing to do with motherliness at all. Now if people were more concerned with constructively building in what are those things they think might be missing from a behaviour policy rather than just dealing with stereotypes I’d be more interested in what they had to say. Otherwise we’re just back in the land of conjecture and, as I have said, black propaganda.

  2. Whatever happened to empirical evidence?

    • For what? I’ve always had time for opinion and anecdote, just so long as it is presented as such and open to debate.

      • I have time for opinion and anecdote too, but there are some rather sweeping generalisations in this post.

  3. OK.

    Generalisations first;

    1. “The orthodoxy ‘children must (and can only) learn through play’. What proportion of schools adopt this orthodoxy?

    2. When two myths collide… What proportion of children “have free reign (sic) to do whatever they like” inside or outside school?

    3. Bad behaviour in the infant classes. Again, how many teachers excuse this as ‘cute and cheeky’?

    4. “Children these days are just not being taught to sit still, listen and be quiet.” Obviously that’s not why nurseries, playgroups, pre-schools and infant classrooms make a big deal out of good sitting and good listening.

    Then there’s;

    “By the time these badly behaved children enter secondary school, complete with their inability to read, write or add up, it is too late.” Tell that to the self-made millionaires who messed about at school.

    As for those Victorian teachers steeling themselves to do the right thing with their lack of training, performance related pay, no books and being expected to teach entire schools, single-handed. It was a system that bred cruelty.

    • You appear to be asking for statistics now, not evidence.

      • Many of the assertions made in the original post are generalisations of personal experience to the education system in general. Personal experience is indeed evidence – but of personal experience, not the system in general.

    • Self-made millionaires who messed up at school do not grow on trees. For every one of those there are hundreds stuck in poorly paid work because they have not the education to get a better job.

      • And at one time anyone who messed up at school – for whatever reason – could remedy this by attendance at an FE college. Successive governments front-loading the education system to save cash have essentially blocked this route.

  4. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  5. I’m wary of linking play-based learning to poor behaviour, but this post rung true with me as someone who recently finished state-school education. As if a switch had been flicked, the expectations of children’s behaviour changed significantly between primary and secondary school.
    Children were often absolved of responsibility of their own actions in primary school – there was often be a well-intentioned excuse for poor behaviour. Then in secondary school, in general, teachers were more comfortable disciplining poor behaviour indiscriminately. I.e. students were not treated any less leniently if they had an external reason for poor behaviour. The secondary school approach makes sense as it is akin to real life, and the primary school approach is perhaps justified as it seeks to not label children as badly-behaved in order that they do not think that good behaviour is unattainable (I actually think this is quite flawed!).
    But the point that the poster makes about the greater tolerance of poor behaviour in early years leading to long-term problems because of the sudden change in expectations after year 6 is what I think is unrealised.

  6. The writer of this piece just posted it as a comment under a blog and yet wording that probably has forgivable hyperbole is being used to undermine the whole piece and even, on twitter, discredit the writer’s sincerity. When I first started putting comments on blogs the same would happen to me. When the general sentiment isn’t liked every loosely expressed, overly emphatic phrase is leapt upon to undermine your points. I learnt the hard way but it is a far from charitable way to interpret someone’s attempt to explain their views.

    • My own feeling is that once the debate is going you should avoid giving anybody anything to object to. or rather any excuse to attack the tone not the content, but in order to get the debate going when others would brush it under the carpet then it helps to be confrontational (although that’s not the same as rude).

      • Maybe you’re right but in the short term it just seems to have given people the excuse to take offence rather than engage with the issues raised.

  7. I’ve read this with interest and my first thought is the poster should have stuck with accountancy! I think previous commentators have pointed out the deficiencies of the arguments; suffice it for me to say that as an experienced primary teacher I don’t recognise the validity of the views in any widespread or even limited contexts. My
    experiences in a PRU working with scores of
    mainstream schools is that behaviour
    management in a structured and focused way is much sought after ie schools are not
    content to adopt a laissez faire attitude
    based on play and ‘do as you will’ because it doesn’t work.
    I hope the poster will reflect on his/her practice in the fullness of time and give a more considered view on the very real nature of primary schools.

  8. […] Teaching in British schools « A New Primary Teacher Writes… […]

  9. It’s rein, not reign – free rein, as in letting the horse do as it wishes.
    And I think the writer means instil, not install.
    Just saying ….

    • Reign may be more appropriate in the context of the post. Come on C2G we all make typos and substitute homonyms in lax moments…

      • And before you wade in – I did mean homophone – see ;)

  10. Why would we want children to “sit down, listen and be quiet.” Discussion, questioning, sharing of ideas and challenge is the basis of good learning (in my opinion), not sit down, shut up and write down what I say.

  11. […] example that follows, but I think that it illustrates why lots of people have got cross about *that* primary school post, and why the post was so unhelpful (and potentially […]

  12. […] Wilshaw’s comments on school readiness and the response in the Telegraph letter. A recent guest post on his blog is critical of play-based learning, suggesting it causes problems for teachers higher up the food […]

  13. I always enjoy reading a good old rant-n-rave! Personally I’m not a fan of play-based education (in a school setting), but would like to play Devil’s advocate for a second and caution you for ‘bashing’ something that you seem to have not experienced properly-done. If a school’s idea of play-based learning is, as you said, leaving children to do “whatever they like”, then they need some serious PD! I believe your beef should be with the particular school/s that you’ve experienced adopt an approach of ‘let-the-kids-run-wild-and-free’ and we’ll call it ‘play-based learning’, not with the practice itself!

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