Denying the debate about progressive and traditional education (Part 1)

February 18, 2016

For over a hundred years it would have been considered insane to deny that there was a big ideological debate in education. At times the debate might have seemed centred on university education departments, or teacher training colleges. At times it might have mainly affected private schools or primary schools. At times it might have seemed something that was more of a debate in the US than here. But to say there wasn’t a debate between a “progressive” (or “child centred”) approach and a “traditional” one would have been to deny the obvious. It would have been to ignore, not just contemporary disputes, but history. It would have been to show ignorance of both the academic and philosophical literature of education. It would also reveal that one was oblivious to the fiction inspired by schooling, from Hard Times to The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie. Even Goodbye, Mr Chips has a scene where Chips is subjected to unwelcome pedagogical demands from an advocate of the latest trends in Latin teaching. When Melanie Phillips’ book All Must Have Prizes came out in the late 90s, or when Chris Woodhead became HMCI, nobody would have dared to say that nobody disagreed with them. Teachers were often given the impression that those who argued the traditional case were likely to be right-wing politicians or journalists, not teachers, or that the “evidence” favoured progressive education, but there could be no doubting that there was an argument.

However, in the first decade of the twenty first century, the progressives took total control of education in the UK. In England, OFSTED enforced progressive lessons and the GTC(E) told teachers that professionals must believe progressive dogma and struck off those who tried to expose what was happening in our schools. An army of local authority advisors told teachers in state schools the “correct” way to teach. As social media expanded, teachers who took the opportunity to argue against the progressive consensus were told they were “unprofessional” and had no right to hold such opinions. Education became merged with children’s social services, and the explicit aims of the system became less and less academic, as shown by Every Child Matters and the 2007 National Curriculum.

The high tide of progressivism has now receded. A mixture of teachers being given a voice on social media to expose what is happening in schools, and the influence on the English education system by a number of Conservative politicians who, unlike their predecessors, believed in both comprehensive education and an academic curriculum, has seen things changed. The argument between progressives and traditionalists has broken out again. However, many progressives, who still seem to hold the greatest share of power in education, do not appreciate this change. And one of the most common tactics is to deny the existence of that debate. There are 3 main forms of denial:

  1. We all agree. According to this form of denial, nobody ever really denied any of the beliefs of traditionalists. There was never really any dispute over teacher authority, the content of the curriculum or the methods of teaching. All the options were actually just along a spectrum and everyone sits in the middle of that spectrum, mixing and matching, with nobody actually being traditional or progressive.
  2. Where did these labels come from? This line of argument can only really be seen as an attempt to exploit the ignorance of many who have entered the teaching profession and their unwillingness to doubt authority. The idea is that if you have managed to choose to become a teacher without reading of the debates in education, gone through teacher training without being aware that your were being trained in progressive education, and taught in schools without ever having been told you were a progressive, then these labels cannot matter. They must be some trick invented recently, probably by teachers on social media.
  3. The debate doesn’t actually happen in schools. This is not dissimilar to the older idea that all teachers agree and the traditionalists are outsiders. But it goes further in seeking to marginalise those who dare express their opinion in school. Apparently nobody in schools has an ideological disagreement about the behaviour system or the methods of judging teachers. Nobody in schools has to deal with a scheme of work, or a system of assessment that is designed by teachers who disagree with them over the purposes of education and the nature of learning.

In my next post I will outline the main areas of disagreement, and draw your attention to the many ways in which these debates are happening in schools right now.


In case you are interested in any of the books mentioned above, further details can be found below.

Hard Times (Penguin Classics)
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (Penguin Modern Classics)
Goodbye Mr Chips
All Must Have Prizes by Melanie Phillips (5-Feb-1998) Paperback



  1. I hear the same type of arguments when it comes to math education here in the U.S. Particularly the “I think we’re all saying the same thing” gambit. We’re not. Really.

    The other is that “The math wars are a fiction” (See 1984: We were always at war with Eurasia, and are allies with EastAsia)

    A variant on these two is: “We’ve moved beyond the math wars; they’ve long been over.”

  2. Hello Andrew,

    I love so much about educational traditionalism (as I think the bulk of my blog posts show).

    However, I do believe that the vast majority of humans live perpetually in a state of cognitive dissonance when it comes to matters of philosophical backdrop. “What the church says vs what my inclinations tell me…?” “ Universal liberty vs universal equality…?” ” A ‘meaningful’ life vs the inevitability of the passing of all things…?”

    I think many teachers could SIMULTANEOUSLY entertain the idea that the biological entities called children need to adapt rigorously to their environment, whilst these same beings also need to discover the unique potential that they have as existentially free beings (otherwise… what’s the point of it all? Life, the Universe and Everything etc.?). These beliefs sit at the core of the more expansive Traditionalist & Progressive ecosystems and they’re not incompatible. The problem is that the overriding political ideology can drive us all to focus on one aspect at the expense of the other.

    My concern is that by driving too hard to force people to atone for their previous ideological allegiance (the underpinning inclinations of which will still likely remain), you are undermining the longevity of the ideology which you would prefer them to have: It will have its moment, and then people will ultimately swing back the other way, because all you are offering them is an uneasy dichotomy.

    It’s not about a half and half compromise; it’s about a recognition of the contrasting philosophical standpoints which pin us together as humans: Both must be able to coexist in their entirety – fully appreciating the limits of their own scope.

    My recent post on Sunday I think drives the gist of this ‘dis-ease’ further http://bit.ly/211FIIt

  3. “…the GTC(E) told teachers that professionals must believe progressive dogma and struck off those who tried to expose what was happening in our schools.”

    Are you alluding to the decision to strike off the lady who secretly recorded, for a C4 programme broadcast in spring/ summer 2005, the true level of classroom misbehaviour in a selection of state secondary schools across England ?

    Arguably the single most shameful event in my many decades at the English state school chalk-face.

    • There were a couple of cases where investigative journalists, who were also qualified teachers, tried to reveal to the public the level of disorder in schools. In both cases, the education establishment condemned the journalists, not the behaviour.

  4. […] Teaching in British schools « Denying the debate about progressive and traditional education (Part 1) […]

  5. Andrew, you might be interested in this thread, which gives a number of (generally disparaging) accounts of what primary education was like prior to 2000.


  6. Such a good post. Everything you say rings true. Now I know that I did my PGCE at just about the worst time possible. If there were teachers who thought what was going on was crazy—and perhaps there were—they kept it to themselves; progressives had total hegemony. The convenor of my PGCE made a great show of being a reasonable person, a moderate, but when in October or November he effectively forbade me to teach my students new words, I knew he was a fanatic. *Sigh* I wish you’d had this blog back then; I would have felt less isolated.
    (I wrote about my awful experience here: readergetsangry.notlong.com.)

  7. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  8. […] wrote a couple of posts previously here and here about claims that there was no debate between progressive and traditional education. I […]

  9. […] In Denying the debate about progressive and traditional education (Part 1) I wrote about the various versions of this argument. In Denying the debate about progressive and traditional education (Part 3) I argued that people were not always aware that their position was progressive. […]

  10. […] I discussed the main forms of denial here; […]

  11. […] Denying the debate between progressive and traditional education (Part 1), (Part 2), (Part 3) and (Part 4) by Andrew Old […]

  12. […] Andrew Old’s blog.  And I can’t help but think it’s more about power, who’s in control and what […]

  13. […] is debate on the merits of having the debate. The debate between constructivists and instructivists, between […]

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