Yesterday I began to look at the reasons I believe there are two opposing camps in the traditional / progressive education debate. I cannot claim to have come up with a definitive answer, but I begin to suspect that it is more than just the personal educational experiences of the teachers.
Last Sunday, Harry Webb wrote about ‘obedience’ in schools (which garnered a fantastic response from Deputy John), in relation to the publication of the ‘educational vision‘ of Michaela Community School.
This is the school set up by Katherine Birbalsingh, the teacher who spoke at the Conservative conference in 2010. She has clearly stuck to her principles by including the line: We will expect our pupils to be polite and obedient. This caused quite a storm on Twitter, and I highly recommend reading Harry Webb’s post for a good insight into what this means in reality.
But what stood out for me the most on Michaela’s website, was the second paragraph on the Welcome page:
Michaela will bring the values and advantages of a private education to young people of all backgrounds by providing a highly academic curriculum and strong discipline.
And this, I think is the heart of the problem.
One blogger has even written a parody of Michaela’s website, substituting “Like a public school only for poor kids” for the statement above.
Michaela Community School has overstepped the mark – it has said the unsayable and there are many teachers who cannot accept this. Michaela wants to emulate a private school.
In the vast majority of independent schools, strong discipline and pupil obedience go hand-in-hand. In this way, the schools are able to concentrate on the education side of teaching, rather than on the crowd control side. Without this, the teachers couldn’t teach, and the learners couldn’t learn. In the state system, this is often the polar opposite.
In addition to discipline and high academic expectations, independent schools often favour a more traditional approach to teaching. This is not true in all cases, of course, but it is certainly a feature of the more academic institutions. Although children in these establishments will have the opportunity to do some independent learning and to participate in group work, it isn’t the backbone of the school in the same way that those approaches are in the state sector.
Additionally, it must be remembered that independent schools have never been required to follow the National Curriculum, and thus have not been subject to the shifting sands of educational policy. What they do, they do very well. And what they do, works.
In many cases, it also hasn’t changed in a long time. The school have discovered the best way to impart knowledge to their pupils, and they have continued with this without interruption for many years.
But private schools are elitist, divisive and promote social disparity.
So they must be wrong.
If the schools are wrong, then so is everything they do.
This, I seriously suspect, is at the root of much of the opposition to traditional teaching methods by many in the profession. They have an ideological opposition to anything which may be seen as supporting a two-tier educational system, even if that really isn’t the issue.
The headteacher I mentioned yesterday is a case in point. She detested the very idea of private schools, and would not entertain any activity or idea that seemed to be rooted in the private system. And she isn’t alone. I have heard a head berating an NQT for using the term ‘houses’ when he should have said ‘teams’, on the basis that the first term is ‘too posh’ for their school.
Thousands of parents part with millions of pounds every year, in order to send their offspring to a private school. Why? Certainly there is an element of ‘the old boys’ network’ for some of them, but this doesn’t account for all of it. The only rational explanation is that they know, that in the majority, their children will receive a good education there.
A good traditional education. One that has proven results over many years, that focuses on knowledge, that aims to equip all pupils with the ability to succeed in life. Is this really wrong?
There are clearly a number of teachers who don’t think like this, they’re the ones who advocate a more traditional approach to learning, irrespective of whether they themselves were educated in the independent or state sector. They believe that their approach works and they will pursue their course of action for the benefit of their pupils. I’m sure that a number of these teachers actively dislike the idea of private education, but they can see that there is a distinction between the methods and the system.
I’m not convinced this is true of all teachers though.
There are certainly some who truly believe in the ideals of a progressive curriculum, and I have a certain amount of respect for those teachers. I disagree with their outlook, but I applaud anyone who does something because they truly believe in it. However, again, I think those teachers are in the minority. From my experiences of discussions with teachers who advocate a progressive curriculum, their main reasoning seems to centre on the premise that it is the opposite of the traditional style that is used in the independent sector. This doesn’t seem very good reasoning to me. If teachers project their personal prejudices onto their educational outlook, they do the children they teach a great disservice.
Polite, obedient, well-rounded children who have a desire to learn are not the preserve of some elite establishment. Potentially, they are the children we see every day, the ones from the broken homes, the council estates, the refugees and the abused.
If we give them a good base from which to grow, if we teach them things they need to know, if we give them knowledge, encourage good manners and enquiring minds, they can make some headway in escaping their current positions.
If we avoid anything ‘traditional’ in the misplaced belief that it smacks of public school, be it discipline or knowledge, we perpetuate the two-tier educational system, and by definition restrict them to a second-class life. We’re essentially saying ‘you can’t do what the posh kids are doing, you’re not good enough‘.
Is that really the message we want to give our pupils?