Tradition or snobbery? Part 2

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?

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10 Responses to Tradition or snobbery? Part 2

  1. A thought-provoking couple of blogs which I really enjoyed pondering over.

    I struggled with this last sentence though:

    “We’re essentially saying ‘you can’t do what the posh kids are doing, you’re not good enough‘.”

    I think there’s another way of looking at this. It is entirely possible that a person can look at private schools and think “I want my students to learn *more* than just traditional stuff”. Or you can think to yourself “we could learn that stuff, or we could learn stuff that is even more useful/interesting/helpful”. Or you might think “if some kids already know that stuff, why not have some kids learn other equally interesting materials and then you’ll have things to share later in life?” All of these are at least *possible* reasons for rejection of the teaching of ‘traditional’ materials, even if you don’t agree with them. It really doesn’t have to be that anyone who is thinking beyond traditional materials is doing so because they think that not-posh kids are not good enough.

    • This is certainly possible, but my concern is that in some instances the “stuff they could learn” (or the way in which they could learn it) is rejected simply because it has links to private education.

      If something works, and works better than any alternative, it should be used no matter which educational background it stems from. But I’ve come across statements that show that there is a certain level of animosity for anything that hints at the private sector. I think that disadvantages some pupils who may benefit from a more structured approach than that which is often found in state schools.

  2. bt0558 says:

    I shall be a little less positive than missmcinerney was abou the post. The only thoughts it provoked in me were of the “what a pointless blog” type.

    “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.”

    The post I found generally condescending and offensive but this paragraph was for me the worst. What do you mean “potentially”. People from council estates, those from broken homes, refugees and the abused are not potentially polite, obediant and well rounded children, they are polite, obedient and well rounded children.

    The idea that a private, or as you like to describe it a “traditional” education will turn council estate people, tyhe abused, refugees and those from broken homes into better people seems to me to be insulting.

    “There are certainly some who truly believe in the ideals of a progressive curriculum”. Never, what some truly believe. I guess the others just pretend or maybe they just dont understand.

    I have worked in both state and private sectors and I do not recognise the two positions you suggest. I think just about every teacher I have ever worked with has used an eclectic mix of methods. Sure I have seen what you would call “traditional methods” used more in private education, mainly because they require less effort, require less planning and with much smaller classes are much much easier to implement and manage.

    I have seen and indeed used myself traditional methods as part of my practice in every school at which I have worked.

    The gap between rich and poor is getting wider and wider. Poor people have less and less access to fair treatment and justice. Poor people are increasingly regarded as parasites, taught in schools that have been underfunded for decades and regarded as unworthy of even minimum wage rates.

    The idea that private schools experience good bahaviour and good results due to their traditional teaching methods is an interesting one.

    “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.”

    There are a range of reasons why parents send their kids to private schools from advantage, to small class sizes, to excellent facilities, to good behaviour. For some it will be tradition.

    However I think maybe the private education system may be in trouble. I heard yesterday that some private schools have abused children as pupils, children from broken homes, children from council estates. I even heard that one or two even have refugees. Whatever next.

    • I used the word “potentially” as I have often been told that I “can’t teach that to our kids – this isn’t Eton, you know!” – the implication clearly being that the children I am teaching are in some way inferior to those in a private school.

      I don’t believe this to be the case. If a child from a sink estate was given the opportunity to go to Eton, I’d expect them to do as their classmates. I wouldn’t presume that the lack of money at home somehow prevented them from having high aspirations or from achieving well.

      And yet is seems as though some people in education do feel exactly that.

      So I use the word “potentially”, because although I believe it to be true, very often these children aren’t given the opportunity to prove that it is true.

  3. Thank you for this! If I had my way, I’d give all the kids the posh education.

    • Thank you for your comment.

      I wish we could do just that – give them all the same opportunities, expectations and school experiences, irrespective of family income!

  4. Great posts, I very much enjoyed them. I’m all for a posh education.

  5. I think there’s an implicit assumption in this post that certain practices common in state schools have caused problems with discipline and achievement and that if only the system delivered “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” those problems would disappear.

    I attended such a school, a girls’ grammar. The vast majority of the pupils were intelligent and well-behaved. The way we were taught was appropriate to our ability and demeanour and the small number of pupils who didn’t fit in left or were excluded, so not surprisingly, the outcomes were good. But even in my brief teaching experience, I’ve taught pupils who simply could not have coped with the expectations and workload.

    History doesn’t support the view that traditional education has consistently ‘proven results’ either. In the latter part of the 19th century, France and England followed Germany’s example by making education compulsory. You couldn’t get much more traditional than the methods employed in schools at the time.

    In France, the government was perplexed by the number of children in the new system who didn’t seem to be able to learn like the rest. It responded by commissioning Alfred Binet to devise a test to find out what children’s learning difficulties were – his work eventually resulted in the Stanford-Binet intelligence scale.

    According to the Warnock Inquiry (1978) 19th century school boards in England were also surprised by the number of children who turned up for school with disabilities of some kind and despite being educated in the same way as other children, simply failed to learn. In many cases, teachers just couldn’t address these children’s needs. As a result, by the beginning of the 20th century, children with sensory and mobility impairments were hived off into special schools where the focus was on training them for work – although many did get an education too. Children with severe disabilities or major behavioural issues were deemed ‘uneducable’. Warnock (80 years later, note) recommended educating all children, regardless of disability, and that as many children as possible with disabilities should be educated in mainstream schools; a statement of special educational needs would specify the additional support they needed.

    The way the Warnock recommendations have been implemented is a mess, and I don’t think there’s any question that the English education system has lost its way and is causing some of the behavioural problems and low achievement seen in schools. It’s possible that the traditional methods used in the 19th century are different to the traditional methods advocated in this post, but it’s not clear how they would differ. Or how they would accommodate the needs of around 20% of the school population who, at one time or another, need additional support.

    • Thank you for your comment.

      I’ve mentioned before (in my comments to “Damaged Children – Emma & Molly”) that I don’t think all children fit the one educational mould. I think we should have a range of provisions, for a range of problems.

      I despair at watching children pushed through the hoops to gain a GCSE when they’re not even sure what day it is, simply because legally they have to, and the school need to gain as many passes as possible.

      There are a great number of children for whom the current model simply doesn’t work, and they would not do well if forced through a very academic route. But equally, I feel that in many cases, these children are served even less well by being expected to cope in a system that puts them in charge of their own learning!

      We need to look again at the educational structure we have, and to come to some realistic expectations about the children it serves. For those with an academic mind, a more traditional approach is probably beneficial, as it would be for those who have chaotic home lives, but who can otherwise cope with the realities of school. Children who cannot fit into school through either mental or physical disabilities need suitable, well-resourced alternative provision.

      There are also some children who are simply not very bright. They should be given the opportunity to attempt challenging work, where possible. But we also need to be realistic. If a child cannot cope with maths more demanding than the 6 times table, insisting they learn trigonometry is fairly pointless. But showing them how useful the 10 times table is, and how to keep basic household accounts will help them throughout life.

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