I wasn’t going to write a piece inspired by Rob Peal’s new book Progressively Worse: there are already several excellent reviews online (see here and here). It was when I read Debra Kidd’s post, however, that I decided to write something. In her post, she associates educational traditionalists with a neo-liberal political agenda. While there certainly are people who support both these things, I want to challenge the idea that the two have to be associated.
What does it mean to be a traditionalist? I can begin by saying what I am not. I am not an elitist. I am committed to the idea of a comprehensive education, if that means that all children, regardless of prior attainment or social class, have an entitlement – a fundamental right – to gain knowledge of the world in which we live. Michael Young and his associates make this case powerfully: knowledge is emancipatory. Some forms of knowledge – as captured in the academic disciplines such as mathematics, chemistry and history – have more explanatory power than others, and therefore it makes sense to teach our children those subjects. Children from the least affluent backgrounds, whose parents cannot or do not help them distinguish between everyday experience and powerful knowledge, are those in the greatest need of history, mathematics, chemistry and literature.
I have always shied away from using the term ‘progressive’ in my posts due to the emotions it raises, but I now find I must. Old Andrew’s definition in his Foreword to Peal’s book is strong on this, identifying characteristics of this ideology such as a denigration of teacher talk, a focus on skills over knowledge and a view that the (intellectual and personal) authority of a teacher in a classroom is to be played down, or even removed.
From my perspective, history education in this country has suffered as a consequence of these beliefs. The idea that subject boundaries can be collapsed in a curriculum – such as in the RSA’s Opening Minds curriculum – allowed some schools to stop teaching history as a discrete discipline; historical knowledge lost its coherence in such curricula and became little chunks with which children could play while focusing on so-called generic competences. The denigration of teacher talk – particularly through Ofsted – removed from history teachers one of the most powerful tools for conveying stories about the past. In exams, the idea that description is a ‘low order skill’ led to a loss of narrative in history, ironic given that the construction of narrative is one of the most complex things a historian does. The introduction of the ‘new history’ in the 1970s placed the emphasis on the skills of the historian, though the kinds of source analysis that pupils were increasingly subjected to in the 1980s and 1990s bore little resemblance to anything that I would call history. In classrooms, the emphasis on ‘finding things out for themselves’ became an inefficient if not antithetical approach to gaining knowledge of the past. I am satisfied that on all of these points Peal is correct. While there never was a ‘golden age’ in which all children received fantastic history teaching (see Cannadine’s book The Right Kind of History), their education about the past was not furthered in the latter half of the twentieth century by the ideas of progressive education.
But, as with all histories, there are other narratives at work here. Damaging as progressive education has been for history teaching, there is another force which has proved just as detrimental: that of neo-liberalism. I am no expert in politics or economics but my sense is that neo-liberalism can best be described, in the words of John Gray, as using ‘the state to reshape social institutions on the model of the market.’
How has this affected history teaching? Giving schools more freedoms might be a neo-liberal policy, and it sounds great: but what about when headteachers exercise that freedom to reduce the amount of provision of history a child receives at school? This is currently happening at hundreds of academies across the country where history is being reduced to two years, or even one year, of compulsory study. League tables are a cornerstone of neo-liberal education policy, yet these actively encourage school managers and teachers to ‘game’ the system. One has only to look at the various ‘exam training courses’ that history teachers go on to see just how deep teaching to the test – rather than the domain – runs through our education system. Teachers are being encouraged to drill their pupils in exam technique from a younger and younger age rather than teach complicated stories about the past. It is a travesty that in many schools – maybe even the majority – children are being discouraged or even prevented from taking history to GCSE by senior managers where it is suspected that those children will not get a Grade C. A poverty of low expectations? Or an obvious response to a system of incentives in an increasingly technocratic education system? A market in the examination system might bring with it the benefits of competition, but what about when we want fundamental reforms to the GCSE History so that is has a broader and richer focus on the past? Will exam boards be willing to risk losing their customers by designing courses that differ significantly from those that went before, particularly if those courses are much harder? This can all I think be summed up by the tension the current government faces between wanting to have a better curriculum whilst at the same time giving schools more opportunities not to follow it.
I do not find it a contradiction to value a traditional education while rejecting neo-liberalism. I do not see how we can improve the way history – or any other academic subject – is taught in schools unless both are challenged. So where does this leave me? I’m a traditionalist – yes – in the sense that I support a curriculum based around academic subjects with a central role for the teacher in teaching. But being a traditionalist does not make me a neo-liberal. I can quite happily sustain a belief in the value of a traditional education while rejecting a neo-liberal approach to our education system. If that makes me that most hopeless of oxymorons, a liberal paternalist, then so be it.