Year Zero

June 22, 2019

I trained to teach in 2001-2002 and this blog began in October 2006. The mid-noughties were a time when progressives were consolidating their control of the education system. Although they were losing ground on preventing phonics teaching, and the policy of Inclusion had become an embarrassment, they had successfully seen off the original version of the National Strategies that had been inspired by Direct Instruction and were setting the agenda on the purpose of the education system. We were entering the period where education would be merged with social services, and the academic side of schooling would be given the lowest priority it ever had. GCSEs would soon become dominated by controlled assessment and retakes, and school inspection was becoming a racket where consultants made money out of selling schools advice on the “correct” teaching methods, while also working as inspectors who would ensure that schools were enforcing those methods. This enforcement was largely done through grading teachers on a 1-4 scale largely on the basis of their teaching methods.

If you look in the archives of my blog, you can see me discuss many of the developments and initiatives of the time, and also, as an anonymous blogger describe what was going on in the places I worked. The years from 2012 onwards saw much of this change. The Gove reforms, changes in OFSTED under Sir Michael Wilshaw’s leadership, and the growing voice of teachers on social media, have meant that many of my experiences from before those changes are bizarre tales that newer teachers might struggle to believe. Although some schools are still stuck in the past, and much teacher training is still run by people who left the classroom during that time without ever seeing those ideas be abandoned in schools, we have moved on. The collapse of the progressive hegemony is now a historical fact.

Except, of course, this is inconvenient for progressives. In the last few years we have seen progressives deny that any of this stuff happened in much the same way that they deny that there was more than a century of debate between progressive and traditionalist ideas in education, or that people in schools ever disagree over philosophy. I have covered this denialism in two posts already.

Nobody’s actually against knowledge are they?” dealt with the argument that there was never any opposition to the teaching of knowledge in schools. I recommended two main sources for those who ever doubted that there was an antipathy to knowledge in our schools. The first was Daisy Christodoulou’s book Seven Myths About Education. It provides many sources for the attitudes and arguments of the time in order to argue against them. The second source was this letter from 100 educationalists opposing the attempts to make GCSE more knowledge based, in which they make it clear that the explicit teaching of knowledge should not be encouraged.

…the proposed curriculum consists of endless lists of spellings, facts and rules. This mountain of data will not develop children’s ability to think, including problem-solving, critical understanding and creativity…

Much of it demands too much too young. This will put pressure on teachers to rely on rote learning without understanding. Inappropriate demands will lead to failure and demoralisation. The learner is largely ignored. Little account is taken of children’s potential interests and capacities, or that young children need to relate abstract ideas to their experience, lives and activity…

…Schools in high-achieving Finland, Massachusetts and Alberta emphasise cognitive development, critical understanding and creativity, not rote learning…

More recently, I was told by several outraged progressives that the policy of Inclusion (closing special schools and stopping exclusions), that dominated the early years of my teaching career; that was abandoned after its effects on school discipline became politically toxic had either never existed, or was still the policy. Curiously, I had written a masters dissertation on SEN policy which included this period, and so it wasn’t difficult to research a post about the debates and controversies at the time. “Inclusion: Gone but not forgotten”.includes a timeline with links to both policy documents and news stories that illustrate what the policy was, when it was enforced and when it was abandoned.

However, it turns out that progressives are now denying more than their opposition to knowledge and the existence of the policy of Inclusion. The following quotation from Katharine Birbalsingh, shared by Loic Menzies, caused controversy on Twitter recently:

I find that Katharine can exaggerate for rhetorical effect (and that’s not a criticism, it is obvious and only a problem for the pedantic). There’s also plenty of things she has described over the years that, while teachers I know in London can confirm they experienced them, nevertheless don’t match my experience in the West Midlands. However, this is not in that category. This is a really good description of what I, and most teachers I know, experienced back then. I remember being absolutely hammered by OFSTED when I was the only teacher in my school not to cooperate with my school’s stance on putting tables in groups. While not every school banned rows, most that I worked in made it clear that if you were being observed then you wouldn’t get a good grade if the room was in rows. I remember endless INSETs on making lessons fun, repeat viewings of “Shift Happens” (see below) and the blanket condemnation of teacher talk.

Yet, amazingly, an army of consultants, and other ex-teachers, appeared on Twitter to deny this ever happened.

Now, some of the objections were based on deliberately misreading it as a statement that described everyone’s experience. Katharine did not say that this happened to every teacher in every school, only that it was terrible when it did. Interpreting statements as an absurd absolute is such a common tactic of insufferable partisans on the internet that it even has its own Dilbert cartoon. This is why the principle of charity is so important. But as well as those who misinterpreted the tweet, plenty seemed to want to deny that Katharine described any kind of widespread experience. Progressives seem to want it to be Year Zero. We don’t need to trouble ourselves with facts: we have always been at war with Eurasia.

Obviously, it doesn’t take much to disprove claims that this stuff never happened. Let’s face it, there are plenty of people like myself who were around ten years ago and witnessed it first hand. As mentioned earlier, Daisy’s book and the letter from educationalists, shows the attitudes to knowledge, and the former also gives many examples of the promotion of games over explicit instruction. But here’s a few extra sources for you anyway. Most of these are from after 2010, but they make it clear what was being challenged during the Gove/Wilshaw years, so if somebody wants to argue over when the tide turned then fair enough, but they should still make it clear what has now changed.

If all this is before your time, please have a look at these sources. If we do not learn from the past as a profession, we are doomed to repeat it.






  1. Fortunately, we don’t have quite the same problem with phonics. The 1975 Bullock Report (A Language for Life) stated categorically that the explicit teaching of phonological skills was “profitless”, and that phonics was best learned “in the context of reading for meaning”.
    This attitude persisted for quite some time. I have a letter from Jim Rose dated 13 March 1990 stating that “…I am firm in urging an eclectic methodology…” At the time, he was Chief Inspector of Schools.This reflected a 1990 report by HMI which drew on evidence from 120 primary schools, and concluded that “Successful teachers of reading and the majority of schools used a mix of methods”. Obviously, the ten schools he visited prior to his 2006 review changed his mind.
    Of course, very few schools ever abandoned phonics altogether, and they could truthfully claim ‘but we do teach phonics’. Even my son’s school claimed as much–but nonetheless, after four terms of full-time school, the only letters he could recognise were the ones in his name. We taught him those before he started school. But as mature parents, we had no idea that modern whole-language teaching required children to read to their parents every night–and my son, being absolutely clueless about phonics, never took his reading books home. When we started a charity to help other parents in the same predicament, we were deluged with distraught parents who’d been told that their child wasn’t ‘developmentally ready’ to learn to read.

  2. I remember inclusion. Had a year seven boy, who was SEN, literally climb the wall. This was my fault, btw.

  3. It was the inspectors masquerading as consultants that really drove me mad back then.

  4. ‘Edutainment’ – a desperate attempt to pander to kids and get them to engage with what they are presented with. Many things are written on pedagogy and many ‘research has found’ theories have crashed and burned. In reality, learning has to be the learner allowing you to teach them and for them to have a good old fashioned work ethic. But we now live in a culture of entitlement, where rights are cited but rarely are responsibilities addressed. If a child is not learning, that must be the fault of the teacher – when in fact, a teacher can do very little with a child who is switching off/biding time in a lesson, which in my experience, a significant minority do. Why should a teacher be worried about boring a class? Students are there to learn, not to play silly games that do nothing to progress their learning and understanding. You’re bored in my lesson because I insist you work hard? Tough. The real world is not there to keep you entertained.

  5. You haven’t lived as a teacher until you’re told you have no opinion, because you’re white and male.

  6. […] Year Zero […]

  7. I do think this is a helpful insight into the thinking behind a teacher that was going through training at the time that I myself was a student. Sometimes I think it is hard to place yourself in the position of the a teacher as a student!

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