Archive for July, 2016


Don’t Twitter shame a school and call it a debate

July 31, 2016

Yesterday I wrote about the Daily Mail’s shaming of schools. The stories generally consist of a parent’s complaint about a school, in which the parent describes what the school did, with insufficient attempts to confirm whether it is accurate or not. This is often then followed up with a social media hate campaign that leaves schools overwhelmed with hostile tweets and emails, with limited opportunity to put their side of the story.

Some, however, suggested that the hate campaign against actual people in actual schools was not the important point. That we need to discuss the details of a school’s policies and publicly judge whether what goes on in schools we have never visited is fair. I’m happy to discuss the ethics of school policies and what a fair policy should be like. Watch out for my upcoming blogpost about the “substantive point” in one of the stories.

However, I do not understand why it would be necessary to name or release information about individual schools in order to have such a discussion. I have written repeatedly about daft school policies, yet I don’t think I have ever felt the need to name the school. For the ethical debate it is enough to say “I think a policy like X is unfair” and mention how you know that such a policy exists but not name individual schools. I think a number of schools that have implemented one-to-one iPad schemes have wasted public money on a ludicrous scale, but I can say that without naming any of the schools. I think it disingenuous to name a school and then say “but I’m just discussing the fairness of policies”. By naming the school and talking about specific incidents you effectively ensure that the debate becomes about whether the school is a good school and whether the staff there should keep their jobs. Far from encouraging debate you force people to go silent. Nobody debates freely in a Twitter storm. A Twitter witch hunt is a Twitter witch hunt. I’m all for debate. This is not debate:

And if this is what I get for trying to debate the issue, then imagine what it would be like for anyone working at a shamed school trying to explain their actions.


The Daily Mail is still shaming schools

July 29, 2016

Back in January, 2015 I wrote a blogpost about the Daily Mail’s hypocrisy in shaming schools for enforcing their rules. While noticing that they often run stories complaining about a lack of discipline in schools, I observed:

…they also frequently run another type of school discipline story, which consists of disgruntled parents moaning about schools who have stood up to them and enforced the rules on their children. While some of these articles are, perhaps, phrased so as to hear both sides, it is clear that the human interest aspect of the story is provided entirely by the family of the child who was disciplined. Examples include (all found by Googling “Daily Mail excluded”):

Today I had reason to look to see if the Daily Mail was still up to the same trick of reporting complaints about a school from the point of view of the parents, without considering whether the complaints were true or fair.

Sure enough, I found the following:

What the 12 stories have in common, is that grievances from parents are reported as news, with relatively little priority given to finding out if they are true or reasonable. The stories often involve parents who want exceptions made for their child. In some cases, schools have little opportunity to respond about what actually happened because of confidentiality. In some stories, it is simply assumed that a school could make an exception to its rules this one time without any resulting harm to discipline. Often, the stories simply sound like the everyday excuses you hear from students who have forgotten all aspects of their own behaviour except some trivial detail which they now want to argue about.

I haven’t included the story that prompted me to look into this, because for once it is not about the behaviour of a student, but their parent. However, it is still largely in the same category. The Daily Mail reported today that:

A headteacher who made her name at a Tory party conference by claiming Britain’s education was ‘broken’ is forcing children to eat by themselves and restricting food as a punishment for their parents failing to pay for school lunches…

…Critics called the measure at Michaela community school, a secondary free school in Wembley, north London, ‘stigmatising’…

…The sanction emerged in a letter from deputy head Barry Smith to Dionne Kelly, who fell behind on meal payments for her 12-year-old son Reon. It read: ‘The deadline for this term’s lunch payments was 1st June 2016. ‘You are currently £75 overdue. If this full amount is not received within this week your child will be placed into Lunch Isolation.

‘They will receive a sandwich and piece of fruit only. Only when the entire outstanding sum is paid in full will they be allowed into family lunch with their classmates.’

Ms Kelly, an unemployed care worker, said she had already paid the money by the time the letter arrived, but Reon had received the punishment anyway.

She said: ‘I found the letter quite threatening. Isolating children for their parents not paying upfront is degrading. It’s embarrassing for poor families.’

This seems quite a serious complaint, at least in the way that it has been edited. However, in this case, some of the details the school made available to the journalists, that were not included have emerged. According to school the free food provided in isolation is of good quality. According to the school the parent had not approached them about any problems with paying. According to the school, this letter was only sent after the parent had failed to respond to 5 separate requests to talk about the matter. According to the school, the child in the story had never been in lunchtime isolation due to the parent not paying, only for misbehaviour. According to the school, this complaint was one of many from that parent, the rest, presumably so baseless that even the Daily Mail couldn’t make a story of it.

It is probably worth mentioning that this story would probably have quickly disappeared into oblivion like the other 12 stories, if people hadn’t sought to make political capital. Michaela is a free school with a traditionalist ethos and a headteacher who once spoke at Conservative Party conference. Suddenly, the left on social media decided that, despite everything they’d ever said to the contrary, the Daily Mail was an incredibly reliable source and sprung into action, not only taking the story at face value but often exaggerating it in the repetition. Many seemed to be unaware that those in poverty could claim free school meals and one tweeter even claimed that children were being starved.

It’s probably worth admitting that the way Michaela have done things is a bit unusual. Most state secondary schools allow parents to opt out of school dinners (although, in my experience, independent schools often don’t). In theory, those opting out then provide a packed lunch for their child or allow the child to go home for lunch. However, there is usually no way of checking that the packed lunch is provided, or that the child actually goes home and is fed, and it would be naive to believe that children don’t often go hungry in this situation. It’s often a bit of a shock if you go past some schools at lunchtime to see how many of the children “sent home for lunch” are actually just hanging around in the streets with their friends. Michaela are doing something very different in ensuring that the children whose parents won’t feed them are still fed by the school, but separately and in a way that won’t encourage parents not to pay. Perhaps it isn’t the best way to do things, perhaps it’s asking for trouble. Perhaps “stigma” is worse than hunger. But it is not punishing children for parental poverty. It is not obviously something most parents would object to. And it is not even half as worrying as the schools where dozens of kids hang around in the streets for their lunchtime.

Next time the Daily Mail has a go at a school, please take the time to ask how your school would look if the most disgruntled parent you know were given a platform to make unchallenged allegations. And unless you know that your school would come out of it looking great, then I suggest that all those running schools subjected to trial by tabloid be given our sympathy.


The Child Mental Health Crisis Debate: Part 3

July 18, 2016

Continued from yesterday

As discussed in the previous two posts, there is every reason to doubt the existence of a general “mental health crisis” in children in the UK. However, here I want to ask whether if we were to accept that there were such a crisis, would we accept the progressive take that it is caused by exams or traditional schooling?

The main prompt I had to return to the issue of whether there was a child mental health crisis was listening to this BBC Radio 4 programme about children’s mental health in Sweden. There is a debate there that reflects our own, although the programme suggests there is more evidence for increased mental health problems among the young in Sweden. As presented in the programme, when it comes to suggesting causes for an increase in problems there has been no push to blame exams or traditional education (perhaps because the declining Swedish education is one the world’s most progressive, although they do still do exams). Other explanations are mentioned. Social media is one possible cause, as is a culture of encouraging young people to worry about their mental health and consider upsets to be problems, which then appear in statistics based on self-reporting. One of the most interesting ideas is from psychiatrist, David Eberhard. I heard him speak at the Battle Of Ideas in 2014 and he describes children who are indulged and protected from all obstacles at a young age, only to be identified as having mental health problems when coping with the ordinary difficulties of adolescence. Whether or not his explanation is correct, the claim that Swedish children are happy when young and unhappy in adolescence adds a genuine complication for those who wish to make childhood happier and less troubled in the hope that it will improve mental health in general.

So as well as a lack of evidence there is a crisis in the UK, we can suggest alternative explanations for the causes of the alleged crisis, were it to exist. But let’s press on and look at the progressive case, that seeks to blame it on exams or traditional schooling. The version I’ve been seeing for years, has consisted largely of assertions that countries with a more high pressure education system, particularly Korea, have higher youth suicide rates. There’s not great data on this, but what there is suggests that this is a best a myth (and at worst a racist lie).

Other than this, the only other “evidence” for exam stress causing mental health problems can be found in this blogpost by Debra Kidd. She claims:

  • 29% of teenage suicides can be attributed to examination stress according to a report by The University of Manchester – the second biggest dominant cause. Again this must be reported with the caveat that there will have been other contributory causes.
  • In 2014 Childline reported that for the first time ever, school and exam stress came into the top ten causes of significant stress for children. Way below bullying and family issues, but still a cause. In the 16-18 age group, there was a 30% increase in the number of depressed teenagers citing school/exam stress as the main cause of their distress.

The first of these seems to be misinterpretation or repetition of inaccurate news reports.  The actual study of 145 suicides, found antecedents for 130 of them. 35 (27%) of those who committed suicide were found to have experienced “academic (especially exam) pressures”. Yet this hardly makes it the cause of those suicides, and according to this review there was widespread misreporting:

Coverage in the UK media was widespread. Different organisations chose to highlight different factors from the report, perhaps reflecting their own interests.

For example, The Sun reported that, “The Internet played a role in a quarter of recent teen suicides in England”, while the Daily Mail stated that, “Drugs linked to one in three teen suicides”. The Times, The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph highlighted exam stress.

Not all news stories were clear that these factors cannot be seen as direct causes of suicide.

For example, most teenagers have exam stress and develop acne, and many dabble in drugs and alcohol. But, thankfully, most teenagers don’t kill themselves.

Given how common academic pressures and exams are, 27% seems, if anything, low particularly when you consider how vague the phrase “academic pressures” is and the fact that the age group would have included university students.

As for Childline, they have a real knack for press releases that raise an issue. A search for “Childline report increase” and “Childline record levels of” and a year will find calls relating to how the following have increased at some point:

  • suicidal feelings;
  • cyberbullying;
  • self harm;
  • five year-olds;
  • attempting suicide;
  • child sex abuse;
  • sexual abuse by women;
  • anorexia;
  • mental health problems;
  • bullying;
  • eating disorders;
  • drink and drug abuse.

Also they have reported increases in:

  • Out of hours calls;
  • Calls made by boys;
  • Calls being answered;
  • Total calls.

A search for “Childline report decrease” found nothing relevant.

This does not mean Childline are making things up; this simply means they know how to get a headline out of any set of data. Every problem will have a dramatic rise at some point, particularly if you compare to a low point, and particularly if the number of calls being made and being answered are increasing. We should not, for one second, consider reforming the education system due to such reports. Nobody denies that children can be stressed about exams and we should seek to help those who are. But the idea that exams are a major cause of children’s mental health problems seems to be without good evidence.


The Child Mental Health Crisis Debate: Part 2

July 17, 2016

Continuing from yesterday:

Here are some blog posts and articles from those who have been sceptical about the “crisis”, whether on the basis of the data or the underlying philosophy:

These give real grounds, both empirical and philosophical, for scepticism about the alleged crisis. I’ve also heard it claimed that scares about young people’s mental health have happened frequently over many decades. But it is very easy to assume that absence of evidence is evidence of absence. There really could be an adolescent mental health crisis (by some definitions), we just can’t prove it. There certainly are genuine social problems related to child mental health and it is unlikely that all of them have always existed to the same extent. But the question we need to ask is whether talk of a generalised child mental health crisis makes it easier or harder to address those problems. I often see statistics about a massive increase in children self-harming included among cherry-picked data intended to prove there is a mental health crisis. Somebody more familiar with how that data is collected might correct me, but that seems like a very real issue. But why are we talking about a “mental health crisis” not a “self-harm crisis”? Why not put resources into addressing that specific issue?

I suspect the reason for wanting children’s mental health problems to be as dramatic and as generic as possible, is to ensure the solutions are as panicked and unevidenced as possible. It seems at least a bit plausible that mindfulness lessons, putting children off of energy drinks or reducing the amount of exams even further might improve generic mental health. But if one were to make the claim that they reduced the amount of hospital admissions for self-harm, I think almost everyone would want to see hard evidence. Dramatic, but generic, problems lead to gimmicky solutions and public displays of compassion used to shame those who ask the difficult questions. So here’s my suggestion as to how to move the debate forward, and how to address genuine mental health problems: let’s not talk about generic mental health, let’s talk about the specifics. For the next initiative suggested about improving children’s mental health, whether nationally or just in your school, ask these questions:

  • Which specific mental health condition do you want to address?
  • Why do you think resources should go to that specific condition rather than a different problem?
  • What is the evidence that this measure would address this condition?

I think we’d discover that many of those suggesting “solutions” to children’s mental health problems, don’t actually have a well-defined or important problem in mind.

One final warning, watch out for those who would dismiss evidence and reason. Here’s how one progressive education blogger ended a blogpost full of cherry-picked data and ad hominems:

So let’s stop arguing about who can make the cleverest argument. Who can win. It’s childish and demeaning. Even one child thinking about killing themselves is a child too many. Let’s instead push harder to demand comprehensive data. Let’s do what we can to help those young people who are presenting with problems and difficulties – pushing for better services, considering whether or not we can employ full time counsellors in our schools, remembering that stressed people don’t learn very well. We all have a role to play in this. And bickering is not part of it.

If people don’t want to be argued with, even when they are claiming to present the facts, then something is wrong. We all should welcome it if somebody clever tells us why we are wrong. If you care about the truth, the last thing you should fear is debate about the facts and their interpretation.

Continued tomorrow


The Child Mental Health Crisis Debate: Part 1

July 16, 2016

I’ve written a few blogs recently that touched on children’s mental health, and particularly claims of a crisis.

In The Trendiest Current Arguments For Progressive Education Part 1 I mentioned that children’s mental health is increasingly being used as a weapon in the debate about progressive and traditional education:

I have seen increasing attempts to blur the line between actual mental health issues, and any kind of emotional discomfort for children. I have seen bullying described as a mental health issue. I have seen people take the leap from concern about mental health, to the importance of “wellbeing” , or “resilience” as an aim of schooling and then to a downplaying of the academic purpose of schooling, or the need for knowledge. Most commonly though, I have seen “stress” and “anxiety” join “self-esteem” as an argument against various traditional practices, from strict discipline to setting exams. Indeed, the idea that children are traumatised by exams seems particularly popular at the moment, often tied to the bizarre claim that the amount of exams children sit is being increased by politicians.

In Lies, Damned Lies and Child Mental Health Statistics I observed that a number of interested parties (particularly the charity Young Minds and the now sacked “mental health champion” Natasha Devon) were claiming that children’s mental health problems had massively increased, by misusing and misinterpreting statistics.

In The mental health fad in schools I explained why, despite children’s mental health being a legitimate concern to have, the currently fashionable preoccupation with it should be scrutinised:

  1. Teachers are not therapists and not doctors. We can try to be supportive and we have an important duty to try to refer students to those who can help. But we are not qualified to treat mental health problems.
  2. Like SEN, mental health is full of folk tales and quack treatments. Anything done to support people with mental health problems, or to prevent mental health problems, should be based on the best evidence and judged by people with appropriate clinical qualifications. Even some of the treatments with the best average effects are ineffective or even harmful in some cases.
  3. The causes of mental health problems are complex. It is simply not good enough to assume that anything any child could worry about is a cause of mental health problems that has to be eliminated. The aim of removing worry from childhood, anxiety from adolescence or pressure from studying is not a realistic one.
  4. Charities working with young people should not be given a free pass. We know from Kids Company that it is perfectly possible for them to be wasting money on vanity projects. It is not impossible for them to be promoting nonsense or ripping off schools. They should be scrutinised, just as schools should.

Now a lot of the recent wave of concern seems to have been a result of the government’s ill-judged decision to give credibility to Natasha Devon a charity worker who has promoted crank therapies, abused people online and used mental health as an excuse to attack testing. But moving on from her, are there serious questions to answer? Could there be a children’s mental health crisis? If so, could it have something to do with our education system?

Much of the question of whether there is a crisis comes down to the analysis of statistics. Studies of the prevalence of mental health problems can only really measure a few things. Many are based on self-reporting, which is highly subjective and subject to fashion and tends to result in really large numbers of people being considered to be mentally ill. Statistics gathered this way have resulted in claims that 1 in 10 children and 1 in 4 adults have mental health problems in the past year, the majority of people have mental health problems in their lifetime and that 30% of children feel depressed all or most of the time. Some are based on clinical data which are shaped by people’s decision to seek help, which again is highly subjective and subject to fashion. Clinical data based on diagnoses might be more accurate that based only on numbers seeking help, but it will still be shaped by who actually seeks help, and in the long term by changing standards of diagnoses. On top of that there are huge debates over the nature of mental health problems, with both philosophical and clinical debates over what counts. It is the easiest thing in the world to cherry-pick statistics to show a crisis, and the hardest thing in the world to get reliable evidence that would actually answer the question of whether there is a crisis.

Continued tomorrow



Spielmania takes hold on social media

July 7, 2016

The decision of the Education Select Committee to reject the nomination of Amanda Spielman as HMCI did not go down well with teacher bloggers and tweeters.

The following blogs reacted to the news:

Particularly unpopular was the suggestion that Amanda lacked passion and the suggestion during the hearing (and implied again during the committee chair’s radio interview this morning) that the new HMCI should be “a crusader”.

Here is a taste of some the Twitter responses (not just from teachers, but many are).

I don’t recall who reminded me of this, but David Mitchell has explained why “passion” is not what we actually want from those with a job to do.

Anyway, I don’t know whether social media helped or not, but Nicky Morgan did the right thing in the end. Here’s her letter to the Select Committee.

Dear Neil,

Thank you for the Committee’s report on your hearing with Amanda Spielman, my preferred candidate for HM Chief Inspector of Education, Children’s Services and Skills (HMCI). I am grateful for the consideration the Committee has put into the matter.

I have considered your report carefully, alongside the transcript of the preappointment hearing that you held with Amanda Spielman last week. I have also considered the evidence available throughout this rigorous recruitment process, all overseen by the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments. This evidence includes feedback from Amanda’s written application, formal interview, psychological assessments and a media test.

This has been an open and transparent process, where the best candidate has been selected on merit. A senior, independently-chaired panel assessed Amanda as eminently appointable against all the requirements of the role, and my judgement is that she was the best candidate from a strong field. I have
therefore decided to proceed in recommending Amanda’s appointment as the next HMCI.

I was surprised and disappointed by the Committee’s report. Having read the Committee’s concerns in the report itself, and the transcript of the hearing, it is clear that Committee members’ views on desirable qualities and skills were different in very significant areas from the advertised person specification (which the Committee had received before the role was advertised, and had not offered any comments). In places, Committee members appeared to misunderstand the reality of HMCI’s role as defined in legislation.

Firstly, Committee members appeared to question the extent to which the role of HMCI is that of a Chief Executive. As the role description makes clear, the core of the role is ‘driving Ofsted to be an ever more focused and effective inspectorate – one where the quality and credibility of inspection continues to improve while value for money increases’. HMCI is personally responsible to Parliament for the organisation, staffing and management of Ofsted, and, as Accounting Officer, for ensuring the efficient and effective use of Ofsted’s resources. This is crucial to the role: the new Chief Inspector will lead an organisation with a workforce of 3,000, including around 2,000 inspectors, and a budget of £148 million for 2016-17. HMCI will need to continue to drive the quality, reliability, consistency
and credibility of Ofsted inspections in all of the sectors it inspects.

Amanda’s leadership and management skills have been illustrated in her previous roles, especially in her role as Chair of Ofqual, where she oversaw an ambitious reform agenda. These skills were also tested throughout this process. The panel commented positively on her leadership abilities, which were also evidenced by the psychological assessment. David Hoare, Chair of Ofsted Board has written to me to
emphasise the importance of Amanda’s experience in running complex organisations and her strategic skills.

In the hearing last week, Amanda also commented that ‘raising standards is my absolute driving mission’. Given this, I have every confidence in her vision for Ofsted as an organisation that will continue to be committed to ‘raising standards, improving lives’, and her ability to lead it to deliver this.

Secondly, the Committee’s queries about Amanda’s expertise in each of Ofsted’s areas of responsibility, reflects a misconception of the role. It is not a requirement of the role to have prior understanding of all the sectors that Ofsted inspects: HMCI leads an extensive team of inspectors, all of whom have professional experience of the sectors they inspect. As with previous office-holders, I expect Amanda to lead Ofsted’s regulatory and inspection work, and in doing so, to draw on experts and practitioners from each of the sectors that Ofsted inspects – those employed within Ofsted, and also valuable perspectives from the front-line.

Thirdly, the Committee’s report is factually wrong in suggesting that Ofsted is accountable for failures in child protection. Amanda was completely right to say that this responsibility rests with ‘those who are actually directly responsible for the children day to day in social care’, while also recognising the enormous responsibility of inspecting child protection and other children’s services. This is an important error in the report. The new Chief Inspector must have this clear-thinking precision, and must promote it throughout the organisation, if we are serious about a fair, credible and high-quality inspection system.

Finally, I am concerned that the Committee appears to have been looking for a narrow and stereotypical representation of leadership, vision and motivation. In recruiting the next HMCI, I am not seeking what one Committee member described as a ‘crusader’ during the hearing. As Amanda herself said in response, the problem with crusading is that ‘you can often lose track of the objectivity, honesty and integrity that are needed to do this well’. That is what I am looking for in the next Chief Inspector: someone with a relentless determination to raise standards, but also a rigorous and clearsighted leader for Ofsted, who will lead the organisation and its inspectors to form reliable, credible and well-evidenced judgements about the quality of education and care young people receive.

I am therefore disappointed that the Committee underestimated Amanda’s vision, focus and leadership style. Her objectivity and openness are important strengths and I believe that it must be right that, as we have taken significant strides towards making teaching an evidence-based profession, that we
should look for a Chief Inspector committed and able to come to objective conclusions based on what data and analysis actually show.

I am sure that Amanda will generate fewer headlines than her predecessor,but I also know that she will not shy away from challenging Government, nor offering frank assessments of the performance of our educational institutions. I have absolutely no doubt that under her watch Ofsted will play a central – and highly effective – role in supporting and driving improvement in childcare, schools, children’s services and adult learning.

I will write to you separately about what I believe to be a mishandling of the publication of your report under embargo.

I don’t think I’ll really believe it’s happening until Amanda is firmly in place, but well done to Nicky Morgan for sticking to her guns. And I can only express my disappointment in the Education Committee; I should perhaps have seen the warning signs when they admitted they didn’t know what the purpose of education  is.


Dear politicians, don’t mess up the chance to make OFSTED fair

July 7, 2016

I wrote previously about why I rejected the criticisms of Amanda Spielman’s nomination to be HMCI.

The news that she would be appointed was the single best news I can ever remember hearing in my ten years as an education blogger and fifteen years as a teacher. And the latest news is that her appointment is being blocked.

So let me move from addressing criticisms to addressing why it is really important she is appointed.

The basic problem we have had with OFSTED over the last few decades is that it has not been fair. There are schools with excellent results and committed teachers that have been told they “require improvement”. There are “outstanding” schools that have actually been disastrous failures. And this is without the long history of perverse criticisms of effective teaching, and ridiculous praise for gimmicks that has appeared in reports. In my own career I’ve seen schools wrecked by OFSTED, either by rewarding bad practices or punishing good ones. I’ve been told a lesson of mine was inadequate because the students were working quietly and I’ve seen a school dip massively in results, forcing out the most effective teachers, as they pursued the “OFSTED teaching style” instead of academic achievement.

Now I have been positive about the attempts to address these problems. Improvements have been made and in the end I was positive about Sir Michael Wilshaw’s time as HMCI. There are good people in OFSTED trying to get the bureaucracy to work, and I am convinced it’s much better than it used to be. I no longer argue that OFSTED should be abolished, and am really grateful for what they’ve done to address concerns.

But there is always more that could be done. It should be possible to ensure that all reports are fair. That the unintended consequences of inspection are minimised. That problems are addressed as soon as they become apparent.

And that’s where Amanda came in. She proved at Ofqual that she has the ability to correct dysfunctional systems. If her time at Ofqual proved anything, it’s that she knows how to make systems fairer. She has an intellectual grasp of statistics and management, combined with a genuine concern for fairness and the views of teachers. She is the only person on earth that could change OFSTED into an organisation with a reputation for fairness and a respect for the frontline. And this does not mean she doesn’t care about standards or improving schools, but a fair inspection system that evaluates schools accurately is the best way to improve schools. We need to move away from the idea that the OFSTED process is something to be gamed, and to a system where the best way to get a positive judgement is make sure your school is effective.

Right now our school system needs Amanda Spielman to be the next HMCI.


Denying the debate about progressive and traditional education (Part 4)

July 1, 2016

Back to one of my perennial themes: those who claim that the debate about progressive and traditional education either doesn’t exist, or is irrelevant to what happens in schools.

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.

However, the post I want to revisit is Denying the debate between progressive and traditional education (Part 2). You may want to read that first.

In that post, I identified the core themes of progressive education:

  • Content: It is progressive to oppose the idea of a tradition, a body of knowledge, to be passed on.
  • Authority: It is progressive to be against obedience or teacher direction, or to give power or authority to student opinion.
  • Methods: Progressives are more likely to value discovery, groupwork and discussion between students, and less likely to value explanations, memorisation or practice.

I observed that one could be a progressive because of one’s views on any one of those themes. It was not a catechism. You do not have to subscribe to all of the ideas. There are many types of progressive, with many different and contradictory beliefs. In this way, traditionalism and progressivism are different. You can define traditionalism by referring to necessary conditions – things that every traditionalist must believe. You can only define progressivism by sufficient conditions, things that are each enough individually to ensure that if you believe them you are a progressive.

It is this idea that I want to return to now. Some responses have complained that this is unfair. It is asymmetrical. They would prefer that traditionalism and progressivism were each a single position at opposite ends of a spectrum, between which they can place themselves (and probably everyone else except for a few straw men caricatures).

In response to the question of whether it is unfair to define traditionalism by necessary conditions and progressivism by sufficient conditions, I would argue that, if anything, this is of advantage to progressives. They can always change tack when one of their beliefs is challenged, and can appeal to the support of a wide range of fellow progressives, even when they have quite different beliefs.

So why do I define the terms this way? Well, I wasn’t attempting to set up new axioms for education. I was trying to reflect on how the words are already used. I could not make it the case that progressivism was a single coherent doctrine even if I wanted to. The word “progressive” has already been used to describe people that have run with fewer than all three of the themes above. A.S. Neill’s Summerhill School was progressive because of the radical views on teacher authority, even though the teaching methods could be conventional. Vygotsky’s ideas (or at least the ideas commonly attributed to him) are progressive because of what they tell us about teaching methods, and I’m not aware of them having anything to do with denying a tradition. I don’t think anyone could come up with a list of necessary conditions for being a progressive which would not rule out some undeniably progressive figure, or at least ignore the reasons they were actually considered progressive. Similarly, I don’t think we could come up with a list of sufficient conditions for being a traditionalist which would not also subsume some famous progressive. I could be wrong, but the onus is on those who dispute my definitions to either find out examples where my definitions don’t fit or to suggest better definitions.

Some of the criticism of this structure (necessary conditions for defining one side of an argument, sufficient for defining the other) have implied that this can never be an appropriate way to describe any beliefs or philosophies; the spectrum is always more natural. I said in one of my earlier posts that I don’t think progressivism is unusual by being based on themes rather than a list of necessary doctrines and gave the example of what it means to be “liberal” or “conservative”. However, if I really wanted to pick another example of two opposing beliefs systems where one is defined by sufficient conditions and the other by necessary conditions I would point to protestantism and catholicism. To believe in catholicism is to endorse the beliefs of the Catholic church. These are laid out in the catechism. There are necessary conditions to be an orthodox catholic. Protestantism, by contrast, is diverse and does not refer to a single coherent belief system. It is identified by certain issues (these are our sufficient conditions) where protestants disagree with catholics, e.g. the authority of scripture, transubstantiation, the authority of the church, the meaning of the sacraments, apostolic authority etc., but protestants do not agree with each other on all of these issues. Some types of protestantism still agree with the catholic church on some of these issues. We might say some types of protestantism are more extreme than others (or disagree more with the catholic church), just as we can say that some types of progressivism are more extreme than others (or disagree more with traditionalism). But we can’t say there is a middle position between catholicism and protestantism that is not protestant (even if some Anglo-Catholics may have wished there was). In the same way, we can’t find any middle positions between traditionalism and progressivism in education that don’t turn out to be forms of progressivism. And this is for the same reason, Protestantism is defined by a selection of disagreements with catholicism and progressivism is defined by a selection of disagreements with traditionalism, and there is no position that fits neatly between agreeing and disagreeing.

NB: I’ve avoided putting the word “educational” in front of every mention of traditionalism and progressivism, but please assume that I am using those two words only in the context of what they mean in education.


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