Revisiting the Trendiest Arguments for Progressive Education

December 4, 2016

Back in July 2015 I wrote this post and this post about arguments that were being used more and more by progressives, as their traditional arguments of “it’s what the government/OFSTED tell us to do” and “it’s what the research supports” had passed their sell-by-date. The arguments were the following:

  1. The argument from mental health;
  2. Debate denialism;
  3. The argument from political correctness;
  4. The free market conspiracy.

I thought it would be worth doing an update about how these arguments have developed over the last 18 months

1) The argument from mental health. Out of the 4 arguments I identified as trending, this is the one that took off most. At the time it had mainly taken the form of the false (and somewhat racist) claim that south east Asian countries with very academic education systems had sky high youth suicide rates and, therefore, we shouldn’t learn from their example. However, a few weeks after that post, Natasha Devon was appointed as the government’s “mental health champion” and the new version of the argument appeared. It was claimed that there was a youth mental health crisis, and that exams were responsible. There were virtually no statistics to suggest there was a mental health crisis other than a rise in reported cases of self-harm that might well have resulted from better reporting of cases of self-harm. Youth suicide rates weren’t rising; children were self-reporting that they were quite happy; drug and alcohol misuse and other irresponsible behaviour among teenagers were actually declining. Even if there is an undetected youth mental health crisis going on, there was even less reason to think exams were responsible. Successive governments had been attempting to reduce the number of exams over many years now, with the abolition of KS2 science SATs, abolition of KS3 SATs, decoupling of AS-levels, abolition of modular GCSEs and A-levels and an end to rewarding schools for multiple re-entries. But the unproven crisis has gone viral, with even quite sensible schools inviting speakers to come in and warn teachers about the danger of making an effort to succeed academically and to encourage schools to introduce more meditation and lessons on happiness. Utter hatred can be thrown at anyone who challenges this narrative on social media on the basis that if you stop and ask for facts before worrying about the mental health crisis, then you clearly don’t care enough about children’s mental health.

2) Debate Denialism. This was the attempt to claim that there is no debate to be had about educational philosophy or methods, or more specifically that it is not a debate between educational progressives and traditionalists. I think this has also taken off, but mainly on social media. It has now become very hard to get any supporter of progressive education to admit that they are a progressive. They are more likely to suggest that:

  1. They are not interested in debate (even while they disagree with a traditionalist).
  2. That labels are unhelpful (presumably because not being able to refer to ideas is helpful, at least to those who don’t want the ideas criticised).
  3. That the debate doesn’t happen in schools.
  4. That there is a middle position or a mixed position between traditionalism and progressivism, which they and “most teachers” hold, that just so happens to look exactly like progressivism.
  5. That there is no single “best method” of teaching and, therefore, progressive methods cannot be criticised.
  6. That traditionalists are attacking teacher autonomy by supporting particular teaching methods.
  7. That there is actually some other debate going on, usually about political ideology, and if we frame the debate that way, then traditionalists can be rejected without reference to their actual beliefs and arguments.

Fortunately, none of these arguments hold up for very long when challenged, except perhaps the favour cop-out of supporting point 4 by claiming that the debate is entirely over methods and, therefore, that methods can be mixed. However, there does seem to be an increasing trend among Twitter progressives to block those who disagree, so you can often find whole communities of Twitter progressives agreeing with each other that they are not progressives and that everyone agrees except for these beastly traditionalists on social media trying to create conflict.

3) The argument from political correctness. I don’t think this argument has taken off as much as I expected. There are a few Social Justice Warriors on education Twitter, but people tend to block them once they cross the line into defamation, and there don’t seem to be too many of them in your average school. Despite the rise in political correctness in society, and particularly in universities, in the last few years, the only type of PC that entered the educational debate in the last few years on any scale has been of the feminist variety, with some organised attempts to suggest that women are horribly under-represented by the 66% of headteachers who are female. While some have attempted to use this message to push progressive education, this has not really taken off, and it is mainly being used to promote people’s career advancement rather than their pedagogy. That said, some progressives will resort to PC pearl clutching when challenged in an argument. A number of people in the last 18 months have suggested that everyone disagreeing with progressivism is a man (usually after they’ve done their best to intimidate women traditionalists into shutting up). And there’s always one person who sees telling the truth as an act of ideological sabotage:

4) The free market conspiracy. This was the claim that those arguing against progressive education are deliberately or accidentally promoting “neo-liberalism” and/or private commercial interests. This claim hasn’t gone away, even though the obvious splits in the Conservative Party over grammar schools, and the large numbers of traditionalists attacking the Tories over the issue, have made it far less plausible that all traditionalists are part of some right-wing cabal following a single, hidden, agenda (although some have attempted to rewrite history so that selection was either part of the agenda all along or the inevitable result of existing policies). Given the rise of political extremism on both right and left in recent months, it’s amazing that the conspiracy theories haven’t grown more. It might be the case that there have been so many people throwing around the word “neo-liberalism” on social media outside of the education context, that we’ve just all started to ignore people who do it even if they are doing it in the context of education. Or it might be the fact that issues like Brexit and grammar schools have revealed that most educational traditionalists are middle class liberals, not right-wing attack dogs personally dedicated to Michael Gove (no disrespect intended to any who are).


  1. I’m wary of entering this “debate” as I don’t have deep knowledge of the arguments on either side nor a particular leaning. I do see this debate being perpetuated by educationalists on social media. It’s always presented as though you have to be one or the other, red or blue, the worst aspects of bipartisan politics applied to education.

    Why? Surely we are a bit more sophisticated than that…

    It is not something I have ever discussed in person with any one of the hundreds of teachers I have interacted with over the last few years. It seems to be an on-line phenomenon. Most teachers want ideas for how they can improve the learning going on in their classroom and don’t see such progressive vs. traditionalist dichotomies as useful.

    You make 2 points in Section 2 of your blog post:
    4, That there is a middle position or a mixed position between traditionalism and progressivism, which they and “most teachers” hold, [that just so happens to look exactly like progressivism.]
    5, That there is no single “best method” of teaching and, therefore, progressive methods cannot be criticised.

    I find myself agreeing with both those statements apart from the square-bracketed bit about criticism of progressivism which I don’t understand. Yes, there are some things for which we have reasonable evidence that they don’t work (e.g. learning styles) and it is therefore incumbent on leaders not to promote such bunkum. But really, does educational research ever give us such definitive conclusions about what is the “best method”? I worry that this Prog.vs.Trad debate leads to individual teaching methods being labelled as one or the other and then a whole bunch of valid things that teachers are doing in classrooms (e.g. the occasional bit of well-structured group work, or some investigation / inquiry exercise) being dismissed and the “wrong thing” that is damaging students’ progress.

    But mostly, I feel that any teachers spending too long on this debate (and that now includes me!) just need to get off their high horses and spend more time on their students and on developing their own subject knowledge and pedagogical practice.

  2. Bang on. Thankyou.

  3. I agree that the link between exams and mental health is unproven, but I think you have dismissed the evidence of a growing mental health problem far too easily. Frustratingly there are no good official statistics on mental health (the last ONS Child and Adolescent Mental Health Survey was published in 2004, which is a pretty good indication of how little governments care about this issue) but all the evidence I’ve seen from health practitioners, schools and young people themselves suggest there is a trend (see this summary http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/features/teenage-mental-health-crisis-rates-of-depression-have-soared-in-the-past-25-years-a6894676.html). Maybe this doesn’t make it a crisis, but the fact is we just don’t know (because really good statistics just aren’t there), so I think that should be acknowledged.

    Yes, the self-harm statistics are not conclusive, but neither is the apparent stability of youth suicide rates. I’m sure you can find evidence that children are self-reporting as happy, but what do you do with the conflicting data from The Children’s Society that girls are becoming more unhappy (http://www.childrenssociety.org.uk/sites/default/files/pcr090_summary_web.pdf)? The evidence of declines in drug and alcohol misuse is more robust, but that doesn’t necessarily mean much for mental health – some people have suggested that it might reflect a decline in youth socialising, with them spending more time alone in their rooms, which hardly seems likely to improve their mental health…

    • There is no evidence to dismiss. The evidence that girls are more unhappy is a change that (unless the sample size, which I cannot find within the report, is massive) is within the margin of error even ignoring the potential for hacking the data. The rest is anecdote, which in this area is worse than useless, given the tendency towards fads in both mental health advocacy and children’s issues.

  4. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  5. […] I wrote an update of the trendiest arguments for progressive education here; […]

  6. […] A year and a half later, in December 2016, I revisited the arguments again in this post. […]

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