David Cameron’s administration has made no secret of its belief in the efficacy of traditional educational practices. It has radically reformed national assessments at all key stages to reflect its commitment to rigour and the pursuit of knowledge and excellence for all, regardless of sociocultural and economic background, in the belief that schools, faced with these new realities, would necessarily adopt more traditional methods to ensure their students’ progress. Traditionalist means to meet traditionalist ends, if you like.
The Government also introduced a new, knowledge-rich National Curriculum which rejected the promotion of ignorance intrinsic to its earlier 2007 incarnation – apparently and rather laughably based on ‘21st century skills’. And under the stewardship of Michael Gove and his successor, it initiated market reforms to encourage healthy competition and, as such, respond to the demands of parents, the majority of whom still yearn for traditional practices.
It was a three-pronged attack designed to weaken the influence of progressivism and reintroduce knowledge-rich curricula alongside traditional teaching methods; methods that were, in theory, to become necessary as the most efficient and effective way to impart knowledge.
In a speech delivered at Durham University earlier this year, Nick Gibb MP, our Schools Minister, outlined his government’s objectives: ‘Since…2010,’ he said, ‘our reforms…have focused on bringing a new level of academic rigour to English state schooling. And central to this mission has been elevating knowledge to become a central component of a good school education.’ His and his government’s commitment to traditionalism couldn’t be clearer.
But thus far it has signally failed to deliver on this most laudable of aims. Despite the Government’s best efforts, schools remain mired in a progressive morass. Their leaders – after investing so much of their self-worth in such practices – obstinately refuse to let go of a failed, damaging dogma that’s unfathomably come to define good teaching, against all the evidence to the contrary.
Nick Gibb, Michael Gove and his well-meaning successor, Nicky Morgan, have all grossly underestimated the profession’s rabid faith in the illusory benefits of progressivism. ‘Nudge Theory’ – whereby governments act in an effort to gently manipulate behavioural change instead of enforcing it, exemplified by the DfE’s policies – simply doesn’t work with fanatics.
Indeed, with the contrivance of Ofsted, school leaders and powerful academy chains continue to insist upon using progressive teaching methods, even though more rigorous, demanding and knowledge-based public examinations require a more traditional approach that emphasises teacher/expert-led lessons, hard work and discipline.
In addition, academies can and do opt out of the new National Curriculum in favour of knowledge-light, skills-based and project-based schemes of work inimical to learning.
By far the Government’s biggest failure, though, has to be its flagship academies policy. This has not led to the adoption of traditional methods as liberated schools compete to attract parents empowered by marketization. On the contrary, the Government has given the patients the keys to the asylum. Unshackled and unrestrained, educationalists and teachers – supported by monopolistic academy chains that have been infiltrated by the very same progressive fanatics the Government wanted to neuter – are now freer to impose their destructive dogma on our benighted children. This huge leap of faith was just that: a blind hope that more freedom would lead to a long-awaited return to traditionalism and higher standards. Apart from a few notable exceptions, it hasn’t and it won’t. Children continue to be force-fed a diet of ignorance-inducing progressive bilge that no parent in their right mind would knowingly choose for their offspring.
Meanwhile, teachers now have the worst of all possible worlds. On the one hand we face intense pressure to successfully guide our pupils through the Government’s new, tougher examinations, whilst, on the other, being impelled by our senior leaders to use progressive, inadequate methods to do so. We are being forced to use progressive means to meet traditional ends. And, as if that isn’t bad enough: our performance is being judged by pupil outcomes invariably retarded by the progressive means being prescribed by our superiors. Talk about being caught between a rock and a hard place.
The Government needs to stop ‘nudging’ and start using its democratic mandate to impose reforms that weaken progressivism and embrace traditional educational practices. Such an approach would certainly enjoy the support of parents.
First published on the Conservative Education Society website on 8th July 2016