Plowden’s Progress – Extracts


Chapter 1                The Report                                                                1


                                        Ink-wells and longships

                                        Rousseau to rock and roll

                                        Mixed report                                                                                     


Chapter 2                The Philosophy                                                       17


                                        Spinning and weaving

                                        A progressive philosophy                                                            


Chapter 3                The Practice                                                           25



                                        Inside the classroom                                                                     


Chapter 4                A Classroom                                                           35


                                        Another visitor

                                        Plowden’s presence

                                        Backing the basics                                                                       


Chapter 5                A Critique                                                               48


                                        Black Papers and a great debate

                                        A personal view

                                        Why the confusion?                                                                      


Chapter 6                End of an Era                                                          62


                                        A good result

                                        Testing times

                                        An inspector calls

                                        National curriculum

                                        Three wise men and teapots

                                        Basic strategies


Chapter 7                An Assessment                                                      77


                                        New landscape, new vistas

                                        Plowden’s report

                                        Learning from experience




1   The Report


The Plowden Report officially entered the world in January 1967, at the start of The Forsyte Saga and well before the summer of love. Headed by Lady Plowden the committee, tasked with inquiring into “primary education in all its aspects”, had spent three years gathering evidence and commissioning research…


It is important to bear in mind that the Plowden movement was making rapid progress well before the report was published. When Lady Plowden and her committee began collecting evidence more and more primary teachers were putting into practice ideas that were soon to be officially approved. By the 1960s these ideas had taken root and were not simply theoretical. Nor were they confined to a few schools that had decided to experiment with them…


     The evolution of progressive thought is a fascinating area of study but for present purposes a brief summary of the subject is all that is required. Most commentators trace the origins of progressive education to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the eighteenth century Swiss philosopher. Rousseau believed in the innate goodness of children and argued that they should be allowed to play and explore the world through their senses, unconstrained by formal academic training. His ideas provoked lively discussion in the more sophisticated circles of European society and his book, “Emile”, was widely acclaimed among radicals and reformers in England when it was first translated in 1762.

     The longer-term effect of the publication of “Emile” was to establish an ideological tradition which proposed a new mode of thinking about the nature of childhood and put forward specific methods for the education of young children. In the nineteenth century Friedrich Froebel claimed that play and activity should be a vital part of early development. He likened the growth of a child to the growth of a plant, calling the school he founded a kindergarten – garden of children. Rudolph Steiner came later with his first school appearing in this country in 1925. Steiner believed in the education of the whole child, “head, hands and heart”, and to achieve this he devised a programme emphasising creativity, harmony with the natural world and hands-on activities. Presently there are twenty Steiner schools in Britain and the first to be state-funded is about to be opened.

     Other prominent figures associated with progressive ideas were Edmond Holmes, a former Chief Inspector of Schools, who had become increasingly disturbed by what he saw in elementary schools, Susan Isaacs whose work at the Malting House School was based on Freudian principles, and Piaget, whose theories are acknowledged to have contributed to the view of learning expressed in the Plowden Report. (522)

     Such was the influence of progressive thought among educational opinion formers that the Hadow Report of 1931 put forward a different view of primary education from that which was offered in a typical elementary school. According to the report, a primary school should help children to be healthy and happy, and devote itself to children’s present rather than future needs. It should deliver a curriculum not only of lessons to be mastered but one which provides “fields of new and interesting experience to be explored”. Much of the underlying philosophy of the Hadow Report was to be echoed by the Plowden committee three decades later. One of its most celebrated statements was quoted directly: “The curriculum is to be thought of in terms of activity and experience rather than of knowledge to be acquired and facts to be stored”….




Amongst the 285 individuals who provided oral, or written, evidence were headteachers, assistant teachers, principals of colleges of education, lecturers, professors, advisers and a long list of HMI noted under a separate heading. Many familiar names appear,  distinguished  individuals who have made a significant  contribution to both the theory and practice of education at all levels: Christian Schiller and Basil Bernstein, for example, plus Alec Clegg, Chief Education Officer of the West Riding of Yorkshire, R J O Meyer, the headmaster of Millfield School,  J W B Douglas author of “The Home and the School”, a classic and still relevant study on the influence of social background, and R S Peters, the Professor of Philosophy, who was shortly to become a leading critic of the views expressed in the Plowden Report.

     As well as sitting down and considering these oral and written submissions, members of the committee pursued their fieldwork conscientiously. They visited 275 schools which are listed in Annex C of the report along with the names of their headteachers and their various local authorities. To add a global dimension to the evidence base there were also visits to many schools in other countries….


Breadth and humanity


What did readers find when they opened the report forty years ago, and what does a reader find today? What was the end result of the Plowden committee’s monumental quest for evidence? Leaving aside the obvious  interest of its content, the distinctive features of the report are its breadth, its humanity and its philosophy. For its breadth and humanity it was, and still is, an impressive document, a beacon of enlightened, compassionate thinking. For its philosophy of education, it was, and remains, for some of us at least, unconvincing and confused.

     Its breadth is evident from the beginning. Chapter 2 examines the factors that are present in the physical, mental and emotional development of children….



Conviction and confusion


For many people in the world of primary education it was not only the essential humanity of the Plowden Report which made it a compelling and forward-looking treatise, it was the whole of its educational philosophy. In its warm embrace of the new approach to primary education Plowden endorsed the philosophy and practice of the progressive movement. For doing this it was gratefully received by those who were in the vanguard of change.

     Part five of the report contains its analysis of the purpose and nature of primary schools. Both the substance and tone of what is written reveal the extent to which members of the committee were influenced by the changing mood. There is no doubt that they regarded what was happening in schools as  revolutionary:…


    In the next paragraph we find: “ … the best preparation for being a happy and useful man or woman is to live fully as a child”, (506), and in response to the fear that the older virtues of neatness, accuracy, care and perseverance might decline the report goes on:

Children need them ( the older virtues ) and need knowledge, if they are to gain satisfaction from their education. What we repudiate is the view that they were automatically fostered by the old kind of elementary education. Patently they were not, for enormous numbers of the products of that education do not possess them. Still more we repudiate the fear that the modern primary approach leads to their neglect … Children need to be themselves, to live with other children and with grown-ups, to learn from their environment, to enjoy the present, to get ready for the future, to create and to love, to learn to face adversity, to behave responsibly, in a word, to be human beings. (507)

     The final sentence is an eloquent statement of intent and, once again, no one would disagree with its sentiments. But it does raise a number of questions as do some of the other assertions. Is it reasonable to imply that the best hope for children to become mature and balanced adults is to let them be themselves and ensure they attend primary schools where there is plenty of discovery and creativity? Is there hard evidence to support this viewpoint? Surely there were millions of mature and balanced adults living at that moment who had attended traditional schools and had benefited from the experience….

     And what precisely is meant by children being themselves and living lives fully as children?...


In the teaching of mathematics another revolution is supported. The authors of the report explain that this one began with a growing conviction that too much emphasis was being given to mechanical operations (648) and that a broader mathematical understanding involving practical activities was required. The teaching of the new maths is felt to be desirable and the implications of this are outlined….



2   The Philosophy

Broad church 

The progressive movement was, and still is, a broad church. Different educational thinkers and their followers emphasised different beliefs. For some the emphasis was on activity and experience, and for others it was on creativity. For a few, such as A S Neil, the founder of Summerhill, it was  on allowing children the freedom to be themselves. In addition to these differences in emphasis there was also, in the 1960s, a growing interest in the notion of “de-schooling”. This became a further strand of progressive thought.

     In real primary schools with real teachers the church was broader still. Where progressive ideas were put into practice there were as many interpretations of them as there were teachers. There was, though, one article of faith to which everyone in the movement appeared to subscribe. This was the belief that children’s education should be “child-centred”. It was this term that was most often used by supporters and critics of progressive methods to describe the new thinking. It expressed the conviction that learning and growth should be in close harmony with the nature of childhood and it gave the whole movement a sense of identity and a feeling of solidarity….


Natural growth and natural learning


In progressive philosophy children will develop best when, like plants, they are left to grow as naturally as possible. If they are allowed their childhood, their social, intellectual and physical development will be a natural, organic process. They should therefore be given plenty of freedom to play, to explore their world and to make their own choices. They should not be forced by adults to grow in unnatural ways or at unnatural speeds.

     With the emergence of Piagets’s theories about child development, an empirical dimension to the concept of natural growth was added to what had previously been an intuitive belief. For Piaget, children naturally pass through distinctive stages of development as they grow older. His theory reinforced the idea that children should be treated as children, and given experiences appropriate to their age….

Learning by doing 

Sitting and listening to your teacher is actually doing something, but this is not what was implied by the phrase “learning by doing”.  In the canon of progressive ideology  “doing” had to be much more than this if children were to learn effectively. They needed to be actively engaged in practical, hands-on activities related to what they were learning. Practical tasks would assist understanding, would also be interesting and would therefore be motivating…. 

Learning by discovery 

Associated with the ideas of learning by doing, and learning through experience, is the notion of learning by discovery. Children should be permitted to follow their natural curiosity and interests and in so doing make discoveries for themselves. Teachers can offer guidance about the routes their pupils should take, to maximise the possibilities for discovery learning, but as far as possible they should avoid explaining things directly….



3   The Practice




Many teachers therefore adopted a pick-and-mix approach to progressive practice, using different ways to organise the work of their classes and different methods for teaching topics and other subjects.

     A variety of teaching styles developed which in time became the subject of much interest in academic circles. It was a variety which resulted from the spread of progressive beliefs and the way in which teachers responded to them for over a quarter of a century….



4   A Classroom



5   A Critique


By far the most hostile reaction to all things progressive in the primary school appeared in the so-called Black Papers, first published in 1969. Their tone was strident and emotive as their authors energetically weighed in against modern methods and reasserted traditional educational values. In the view of Black Paper Three, (1970) the effect of  teachers abdicating their legitimate authority not only affected what was happening in schools but had wider consequences, including the growth of anarchy and all the worst features of the pop and drug world. 

     Not strident like the Black Papers, but nonetheless forcefully and cogently argued, were the critiques advanced by a number of academic writers. Notable among them were Professors Dearden, Hirst and Peters. Their incisive analysis examined the underlying theories of the progressive movement and exposed many of their inconsistencies…


Unease about the state of education had been growing in political circles, with concern being heightened by the publication of Bennett’s book and the notorious William Tyndale affair. At the William Tyndale Junior School in South London it appeared that a group of liberally minded teachers, who advocated free choice for their pupils, was responsible for what seemed like a complete breakdown in standards of behaviour. Inevitably the media followed the story with interest.  

     In a speech at Ruskin College in 1976 Callaghan responded to the growing disquiet about education and called for a great debate on the subject. The Green Paper of the following year marked the culmination of this debate….



6   End of an Era


     After much debate in parliament the legislation eventually became the Education Reform Act of 1988, bringing the Plowden chapter to an end. There was a new revolution in primary schools which was to sweep away the long experiment in progressive education. Radical changes were soon to take effect in the crucial matters of testing, inspection and a national curriculum….


It was in the Hadow Report of 1931 where one of the key beliefs about progressive primary education first appeared. The curriculum was to be based on activity and experience rather than knowledge and facts, and such was the significance of this statement that it was felt necessary to repeat it in the Plowden Report.

     Plowden has more to say on the curriculum claiming that a rigid division into subjects interrupts children’s trains of thought and interest. Detailed planning and progression are viewed unfavourably: “Any practice which predetermines the pattern (of subject matter) and imposes it on all is to be condemned…there is little place for the type of scheme which sets down exactly what ground should be covered and what skills should be acquired by each class in the school”. (539) Given these sentiments one can only assume that the compilers of the report would not only have condemned the whole of the national curriculum but would also have condemned, even more strongly, the detail and prescription  within it.

     Many teachers will remember the intermittent arrival in schools of the sturdy ring-binders containing the requirements for each subject. There were no stampedes to the staff-room to collect them as they arrived but no resentment was shown to them. Most people were interested in what they contained and broadly agreed with their content. Primary teachers, of course, accumulated  these documents for all nine subjects – a lot of shelf space - while their secondary colleagues only needed one or two.

     In the event they did not remain on the shelves for very long. A revised version of the national curriculum for key stages 1 and 2 was produced in 1995 and this consisted of one slim booklet. Sensible teachers immediately discarded the original ring-binders but I held on to a few of mine. I am pleased to say they are now prized possessions in my archives.

     Inside these folders were the knowledge and skills which all pupils who attended a state school in England and Wales were required to possess. In effect the national curriculum was a detailed syllabus for every primary and secondary school to follow. Each subject in the curriculum included attainment targets, programmes of study, and statements of attainment relating to the levels pupils could be on….



7   An Assesment

New landscape, new vistas 

Forty years on from the Plowden Report primary schools are different places from those which were once celebrated as models of good practice. Things have changed, which is unsurprising since rapid change is a feature of modern society.

     In the course of my work I visit many primary schools and enter classrooms which are not the same as those I knew in former times. The children are still friendly, attractive displays cover the walls, and tables remain grouped together. In their art and design it is apparent that pupils continue to be creative and inventive.

     What I do not see, except in classes with younger pupils, are children engaged on varied tasks, moving freely around the classroom or setting themselves up in the painting corner. I do not see a small group sitting on cushions in the reading area and sharing books with each other, and nor do I see children working on a topic by copying some writing and drawings from an information book. There is less chatting, no drifting around and no queuing up at the teacher’s table since the teacher is either teaching the whole class or supporting a maths or literacy group.

     Teaching is what I see most of. It seems a strange comment to make since this is an activity one would expect to notice in a school. But in the Plowden years it was often a rarity. Teachers were not supposed to teach. They were there to stimulate and offer direction in the ferment of discovery and experience that was child-centred learning. Teachers caught in the act of teaching almost felt the need to apologise for their behaviour. 

     Now, whenever I visit schools, I see teaching of the highest quality - direct teaching of the whole class with clear, interestingly presented explanations and demonstrations. Pupils are answering questions and being challenged to think about what they are learning, whether this is in literacy, numeracy or any other subject. They are enjoying the challenge and responding with interest to what their teacher is saying. When the taught part of the lesson is over they are settling down to their tasks in a calm and purposeful manner.

     The days of long sessions with rotating activities have disappeared.  Learning about specific subjects takes place in lessons which begin and end at a set time. The lessons are planned in great detail and they form part of a well-organised, sequential programme for each age group. Teachers and pupils are aware of the targets they are expected to meet.

     There is no sign that the division of the curriculum into subjects is interrupting children’s trains of thought and interest, as Plowden claims. (535) On the contrary, lessons in various subjects are providing sustained interest for pupils and offering much more scope for focussed thinking than was ever the case in the progressive classroom. There is no evidence that set lessons are not suited to the nature of children, the classification of subject matter or the art of teaching, as the report asserts. (537) Indeed, the present situation demonstrates the opposite, with children being responsive to short bursts of intense activity and to the routine of a timetable. As for the art of teaching, it is flourishing in primary schools as it has never flourished before.

     It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the members of the Plowden  committee, who spent three years deliberating about every aspect of primary education, did not understand the most fundamental truth of the classroom - that good teaching, more than anything else, motivates children to learn….


Perhaps the greatest benefit bestowed on primary education by the Plowden movement was to provide the momentum to turn schools into child-friendly places. The belief that childhood was a special time, that children had rights to be respected, and that advancing their all round development as individuals lay at the heart of the educational process, had a profound effect on how teachers viewed their role. It was a role which became much less authoritarian, and much more supportive and friendly. Teachers encouraged their pupils with their tasks rather than coerced them. They praised more than they criticised, and they strived to make them feel good about themselves. There was a recognition that not only did children have a right to be well-treated while they were learning, they were more likely to fulfil  their  potential in  an  environment  that  was  pleasant  and non-threatening….


     The Plowden years were not a disaster. There was no catastrophic decline in standards. Pupils and teachers worked steadily, and there were many strengths in  primary education. But looking back at the period from today’s perspective, and combining this with the reservations I had at the time, my assessment is this: the overall standard of education delivered to pupils by the primary system collectively, not by individual schools or individual teachers, was at the lower end of average.  For all its colour, excitement and  vibrancy it  was not as good as it should have been. Its weaknesses outweighed its strengths. Plowden was a mistake, an experiment in education which failed….


The disciples of progressive ideology had been marching towards their celestial city since Rousseau set them on their way. With the resounding endorsement their views received in the Plowden Report they must have felt they had reached the new Jerusalem. As it happened their rejoicing was short-lived and their progress was brought to a halt.

     My celestial city is not the same as that of the progressives. I share their belief that we should help children grow in goodness and I fully accept some of their ideas about learning. It is right that children’s natural curiosity should be harnessed, that they should learn by doing, and that they should be given time to be creative.

    Where my vision is sharply at variance with the Plowden philosophy is in my perception of the function of knowledge. The acquisition of knowledge of any sort should not be treated casually, as it was for so many years. Knowledge is not something children should simply encounter in the course of their exploration and discovery. It is far too important and far too precious for that. It needs to be coherently organised and transmitted systematically.

    The followers of Plowden failed to grasp that the transmission of knowledge, skills and understanding is the essence of education. It is through the passing on of knowledge that human beings have not only survived as a species but have learned about their world, created great civilisations and constructed the miraculous society we have today. The advances we have seen in health care, science, technology, transport, home comforts, manufacturing, literacy, culture, leisure, and also in our values, have been made possible because ideas, information and learning have been passed from one generation to another. 

     Knowledge should be held in great reverence. It brings us true progress. At an individual level it enables children to make progress in the varied lives which lie ahead of them. At the level of society as a whole its dissemination leads to further progress being made in the quality of life for everyone. It should therefore be absolutely undisputed that it is our duty as educators  to transmit essential knowledge to our pupils.

     When we achieve this aim, as we regularly do, we can be confident that, in the words of Plowden, the pupils we teach will become balanced and mature adults, able to live in, contribute to and look critically at the society of which they form a part. We can be confident too, that education will remain the greatest force for progress in the onward march of humanity.