Monthly Archives: July 2015

R2 – The Adonis Factor

Education, Education, Education: Reforming England’s Schools

Andrew Adonis


Reviewed by Sally TomIinson

This book documents the way in which Adonis, during his career as an education advisor to the Blair government and then as a Minister after his ennoblement, undertook a ‘complete reinvention of the comprehensive school’. Adonis dedicated himself to transforming failing comprehensive schools, a ‘cancer at the heart of English society’, into academies, independent state schools with ‘dynamic independent sponsors taking charge of their management’ (p. xii).After the abolition of local authority influence in education was suggested by the right-wing Hillgate Group in 1986; Mrs Margaret Thatcher in her speech to the Conservative Party conference in 1987 made a plea for ‘independent state schools'; and Michael Gove envisages all schools eventually becoming academies, the book should be of more than passing interest to Labour supporters.

Reviews of the book so far have been largely positive, but being considerably older than the author and having lived through many of the imperfections in the education system he documents, there is an alternative story to the one this book presents.

  1. 1.An initial measure of agreement must be with the book’s quotation from R.H. Tawney that ‘what a wise parent would wish for their children, the state must wish for all its children’ (p.35). The problem is that in our current intensely competitive education system the wise parent is all too often one who wishes for advantages for their children, and forgets the losers,
  2. In the introduction Adonis makes reference to his own deprived background, though he attended a fee-paying boarding school in rural Oxfordshire, and was mentored first by his head-teacher, who introduced him to Keble College, Oxford, and then by Roy Jenkins. His arrival at his private school removed him from the ‘vast adolescent jungle’ of Borehamwood school (p. xviii), one of the many he terms ‘secondary-modern comprehen­sives’. Despite studying history he has a curiously ahistorical view of how our mass education system developed out of class, political and religious interests, and which, despite the best efforts of egalitarians and philanthropists, continues to perpetuate inequalities. He is committed to ending class divisions in education, bridging the private­ state school divide and raising educational and skills standards for all, as are the legions of educators, past and present, who have been working to achieve these aims over the past sixty years. It is therefore a pity that in order to defend his support for academy schools he felt the need to attack those he feels impeded these aims.
    1. Villains include egalitarian head­ teachers; teachers; unions; local authorities (especially local authority chief education officers, who are ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ (p. 56)); further education colleges; educa­tion professors (especially Ted Wragg (1), whose reference to him as ‘Lord Barmey of Bedlam’ obviously hurt); and obstructive or reluctant departmental officials and Ministers (he names the delightful Estelle Morris here). Adonis also dismisses the late head-teacher Michael Marland, who devoted his life to improving education, as a ‘bow-tied guru of the comprehensive movement’ (p.146). Among his heroes are strong head-teachers, rich busi­nessmen and philanthropists (including an evangelical car salesman), property developers, consultancy and accounting firms,private schools, the Church of England and others.
  1. To support the development of academy schools a selective trashing of inner city comprehensive schools was (is) deemed necessary and the first chapter duly rehearses the story of Hackney Downs, demonised in the media in 1995 as the ‘worst school in Britain.’ Adonis relies on Michael Barber’s account of this, although Barber was no friend of the school and was involved in its closure.An alternative account of what happened to the school can be found in O’Connor et al. (1999) and Alderman (2012},but it should be noted that the long quote that Adonis includes from a critical inspectors’ report (p.2} could have been matched by two reports at the time which were favourable.Those of us who were trying to help the school would have been delighted to have been given a new school building and the £35 million that the much lauded Mossbourne Academy, built on the site of the demolished school, finally cost.
  2.  In praising the Teach First scheme, by which graduates go straight into schools with some support from university departments, Adonis does not mention that in the early 1990s there was much discussion in the Labour Party about alternative routes into teaching. Teach First is now one route and there is no hard evidence that the development of this form of training is crucial to the success of academies. Likewise, Adonis gives no credit to Sonia Blandford at Canterbury Christ Church University, who first redeveloped the programme from the USA’s Teach For America scheme. Other education systems praised in the book – Finland, South Korea, Singapore- all ensure their teachers are trained for five or six years, in schools and with university assistance.
  3. The shocking tales of poor schools, mainly in poor areas, could equally be matched by tales of good schools in inner city areas, especially those, like the school my children attended, that attracted a social HMIJohn Stannard was the main architect of the Literacy Strategy, not just the people named by Adonis, and Chief Inspector Chris Woodhead, praised for criticising ‘the comprehensive establishment’ (p. 26) was described by one CEO as ‘of much use in the battle for standards as a chocolate teapot’ (MacCieod, 1996).
  4. The second chapter tells us that academies were born of the failure of the comprehen­ sive movement to achieve its As over 90 per cent of young people attend comprehensive schools it would seem that a major goal has been achieved, although the retention of selective schools and the inferior resourcing and status of many comprehen­ sive sc ools education development is selective and partial. Secondary modern schools were not set up by malign local authorities but by cross-party agreement under a Labour government, which ensured that 80 per cent of young people would not need ‘any measure of technical skills or knowledge’ (Ministry of Education, 1945); prevented pupils from taking public exams; allowed technical schools to wither away; and failed to support the post-15 contin­ uation colleges which developed into further education colleges. In the 1960s, cross-party support and middle class pressure,rather than just Secretary of State for Education Tony Crosland, encouraged comprehensive schooling and some public exams (CSEs) for more pupils, and there was cross-party support for the introduction of GCSEs in the 1980s.
  5. The following four chapters document the development of academies after Adonis entered government as an education advisor in 1998.On his arrival in Downing Street Adonis was shocked to find middle class children achieving better exam results than working class children in inner city schools, and parents apparently choosing good schools over poor schools.His visit to Helsinki seems to have convinced him that school choice was necessary, which is curious given that most Finnish children in the 336 municipalities attend their neighbourhood school, there are minimal differences between schools in terms of achievement, and Finland has not embraced the nee-liberal model of choice and competition (see Diane Reay’s article in this issue).However, based on a model of the 15 City Technology Colleges created after 1988, bolstered by regret over the ending of grant­ maintained status, and deploring the absence of sixth forms in poor schools, Adonis, with the blessing of Secretary of State for Education David Blunkett, set about replacing those ‘secondary modern comprehensives’ with academies.
  6. The path was not smooth. Obstacles to reform included not only those listed above, but also solicitors and barristers who master-minded campaigns against academies, and, as noted earlier, the appointment of Estelle Morris as Education Secretary in 2001 as she ‘fought shy of controversy on the left’ (p.89). Indeed, while a small group of unelected people were reforming the education system, anyone who had been democratically elected appears to have been side-lined and transparent discussion with the public non-existent, although Adonis asserts that he ‘rarely imposed an academy or sponsor against the wishes of a local authority’ (p. 120). Chains of academies were intended to fill in the gaps left by local authority services.
  7. 10. Chapter 7 moves on to proving, with the help of some impressive statistical tables and descriptions of innovative organisation and teaching, that academies are achieving higher GCSE results than local authority community schools. The architecture of academies is praised, which is unfortunate now that the buildings are regarded as too lavish and the architects have fallen out of favour.In any case, it is, as serious researchers will concede, impossible to decide on the basis of a set of schools opening in consecutive years over a short period of ten years, and with churning intakes, whether academy schools are indeed superior in either immediate improvement or value-added terms to other schools.The most up-to date evidence can be viewed via the website The findings indicate that whether academies improved exam results depends heavily on giving the alternative qualifications to GCSEs (BTECs etc), the ‘equivalence of qualifications’ that the current Minister has decided to abolish. Without these equivalent qualifications, disad­ vantaged pupils would do worse in academies. On present evidence only a quarter of pupils in academies are likely to achieve the ‘EBacc’ combination of subjects at 16.
  8. The following two chapters describe how private schools and ‘top’ universities can sponsor and assist academy schools and a reinvention of the direct grant school (2) could help fee-paying private schools become state-funded schools. Free schools, Studio Schools and University Technical Colleges (3) are also to become part of an academy system, as are primary schools, either individually or in school chains.Local education authorities may retain some functions or be replaced by a new ‘middle tier’.Since it is now the current Secretary of State’s aim that all primary and secondary schools and colleges should become academies, the arguments presented up to this point would seem to be redundant, and Conservative Ministers can be thankful that the ground for their policies was so well prepared with Adonis and Michael Gave as champions. Indeed the future of acade­ mies would seem to be assured.If this happens, Adonis hopes that ‘the academy system could at last weld us into one nation’ (p. 179).
  9. Chapters 11 onwards are more interesting, and contain some serious suggestions, which are open to debate, for national policies which would lead to improvements in the organisation, teaching and qualification levels for all young people in English education. Labour took the decision in 2008 to ensure that all young people stay in education and training to 17 next year, and to 1B in 2015. A school leaving qualification at 16 is there­ fore now redundant and a 14-18 route through secondary education can be considered, whether in schools with sixth forms or further education colleges. The view that there would be no virtue in ‘pulling up the existing GCSE and A-level system’ (p. 229) without a consensus on what would follow leads on to the kind of debate and argument already in progress, and Adonis’s contribution is to press for a curriculum similar to the International Baccalaureate (six subjects, an extended essay and the study of the theory of knowledge) for ‘academically inclined students’. The half of sixteen year olds (it is actually more like 60 per cent) not on track for higher education now need improved technical and vocational courses, which successive governments have aimed at since youth unemployment rose dramatically after 1973. In 1991 Neil Kinnock created a European Enquiry group which accompanied shadow education minister Derek Fatchett to Paris to discuss a Technical Baccalaureate with Lionel Jospin, then the French Minister of Education. By 1990 David Miliband and others had produced suggestions for a British Baccalaureate with a unified curriculum of academic and vocational courses (Finegold et al., 1990).Similar suggestions recurred in Mike Tominson’s 2004 report, repudiated immediately by Tony Blair (DfES, 2004). Adonis also wants a Tech Bacc on higher and lower levels, which would seem sensible, since the students at Kenneth Baker’s UTCs will be studying optics, lasers and fluid mechanics, while those preparing for caring and other service work will actually need what most lower level College courses now include: literacy, numeracy, IT and social skills.
  10. More suggestions follow which may have the pioneers of the initiatives documented weeping in their tea.He suggests ‘community, action and service’ be included in an IB and for universities to give these recognition. Adonis presumably has no knowledge of the ASDAN youth awards, dedicated from the 1980s to encouraging young people into just those community and action services proposed, and which by 1996 had over 1800 schools and colleges signed up and UCAS acknowledging the awards as part of a profile of achievement. Likewise, to suggest schools become community hubs will not impress those hundreds of schools which from the 1980s have been attempting to do just that.
  11. The book should be read widely, especially by Labour supporters, many of who will wish there had been more consultation within the party about the direction taken in educa­ tion policy under the Blair government and which is now being continued by Conservative groups and politicians with little apparent parliamentary opposition. The next Labour government would do well to concentrate on developing a coherent 14-19·curriculum for the diversity of educational institutions we now have.Relationships between education, training and the labour market will be more important to young people, whether they are coming out of higher education, further education, or apprenticeships.Justifications of academy schools may be something of a luxury now, although the democratic deficit in education does continue to get wider.It may be harsh to describe the book as self-serving, but Adonis does offer a very personal and idiosyncratic account of educational history.

Sally Tomlinson is Emeritus Professor of Education at Goldsmiths College, London, and a Senior Research Fellow in the Department of Education, Oxford University.She is the author of Education in a Post-Welfare Society {McGraw-Hill, second edition, 2005) and Ignorant Yobs? Low Attainers in a Global Knowledge Economy (Routledge, 2012}.


Alderman,G. (2012) Hackney Downs 1876-1995, London, The Clove Club.

DfES {2004) 14-19 Curriculum and Qualifications Reform (The Tomlinson Report}, Nottingham, DfES.

Finegold, D., Keep, E., Miliband, D., Raffe, D., Spours, K. and Young, M. {1990) A British

Baccalaureate: Overcoming Divisions Between Education and Training, London, IPPR. MacCieod, D. {1996) ‘Clampdown on schools in inner cities’, Guardian 7.5.1996.

O’Connor, M., Hales, E., Davies,J. and Tomlinson, S. {1999) Hackney Downs: The School That

Dared to Fight, London, Cassell.

Ministry of Education {1945) The Nation’s Schools, London, HMSO.


  1. An Education Professor at Exeter University for many years, Ted Wragg’s TES column kept many staff rooms laughing for over twenty years as staff struggled with daily ‘initiatives’. Up to his untimely death Ted was teaching a day a week in primary schools and over a thousand people attended his memorial service in Exeter cathedral.
  2. Direct grant endowed grammar schools from 1925 received a grant direct from the central Board of Education in return for offering a certain number of places free to local children from elementary schools. The schools largely catered for middle class pupils, and were finally abolished by the Labour government in 1975.
  3. Free schools can be set up by parental, community or religious groups, and are state­ funded under academy rules. Studio Schools, first suggested by Labour in 2008, take students 14-18 with the aim of developing enterprise and are also under academy rules. University Technical Colleges, an initiative of Lord Kenneth Baker and the late Lord Dearing, are intended for 14-18 teaching in higher level technical areas.

G1 – The Bindweed factor – ‘The Grammar School Which Made Me’ Myth.

The Grammar School and Social Mobility has become a key element of the New Right attack, embracing media support as Michael Pyke’s article makes clear. But it is not just BBC4 which embraces this, and no amount of factual evidence makes any inroads especially in Kent and other areas with Grammar Schools. Michele Lowe calls this the ‘Bindweed factor’, ideas that can never be disposed of by evidence and rationality. It is however vital to put the arguments and the facts however, and SOSS will continue to do so. TF.

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that grammar schools in Britain were ladders up out of poverty and the making of many a child from a working-class background. Well, if not quite universally acknowledged, it has become the received wisdom of countless newspaper articles, radio and television programmes.

The notion that many now successful people from humble backgrounds owe their success to the grammar school which educated them is so deep rooted that it has become like bindweed: you can never really fully extirpate it.  Those for whom it was the leg up they needed are so enthusiastic they never stop to think that a comprehensive school could have done the same for them.  There’s clearly something very powerful in the voodoo effect of passing an exam at 11, which most kids fail.  You’re anointed and the seed is sown: you are academically gifted, part of an elite.

So when the BBC4 ran ‘The Grammar School: A Secret History’ in 2012 it possibly did not strike many as especially controversial, though one critic described it as ‘a love letter to the grammar school system’.  Michael Portillo spoke movingly about his alma mater, Harrow County Grammar School for Boys.  He, Diane Abbott (who attended Harrow Country Grammar for Girls at roughly the same time) and Andrew Neil all chant the mantra on ‘This Week’, whenever education is up for discussion about grammar schools enabling social mobility.  They all have compelling reasons to feel this way. Talented and able children, to use the current educational descriptors, picked up and promoted by an education system which worked for them. Alan Johnson, another regular guest doesn’t though.  He left his grammar school at 16 with one O level – English.  As good as some grammars were, they were helpless in the face of the hardships of a childhood like his. He describes in his memoirs how it was the Post Office union structure which made him.  In fairness, he says this on air, but he’s something of a voice crying in the wilderness. His experience illustrates well, however, what is a little-spoken-of truth about grammar schools: they were not the force for social mobility they were claimed to be.

A research paper in the British Journal of Sociology in 2011 entitled ‘Do Comprehensive Schools Reduce Social Mobility?’ attempts to get at the nub of the question. Its author, Dr Adam Swift, Fellow in Politics and Sociology at Oxford University set out their methodology. They needed enough children in the sample to match children going to comprehensive schools with those going to grammars and secondary moderns. They were able to use a large, longitudinal study of all children in a week in March in 1958. What they had was a snap shot of children with the same level of ability in different schools. That means they were not just looking at who got into grammar schools, but those who didn’t and also children of similar abilities who went to comprehensives all at the same time. The children in the sample were all born in ’58 and were all in secondary education at age 11 in ’69. The study’s findings confound the myth.

What were a child’s chances of getting out of the bottom 25% of the income distribution if they went to grammar school?

Their research found there was no difference in progress between the grammar school children and those who went to comprehensive schools.

The grammars did, however, have a slight influence on mobility from the bottom half of the income distribution to the top half, but critically not to the top quarter. Yet, as Dr Swift emphasises, it was only a slight difference and not the progress they had expected to see in the light of the claims made for grammars. But grammars did seem to help middle-class children to at least maintain their advantage.

Now, whilst the champions of the grammars are vocal, the dissenters are subdued. It’s difficult to imagine a programme entitled ‘The Comp Which Made Me’. There are some prominent people who acknowledge their comprehensive school background – thank you Robert Peston, BBC Economics Correspondent and Evan Davis of Newsnight to name but two. But ‘comprehensive kid’ doesn’t have the same ring as ‘grammar school girl or boy’. The latter is a badge of honour, whereas the former is still a badge of shame. And yet entrance by state-educated pupils to Oxford stands at 57.4% and to Cambridge at 63%. Admittedly, still heavily weighted towards privately-educated students, but higher than in the halcyon days of the so-say class-barrier-smashing grammar schools.

But the public discourse still has it that social mobility has ground to a halt, because ideologues wrecked education in the 70’s. The most invidious aspect of this thinking is how it stops us considering other ways of looking at education. Television or radio programmes examining other countries’ education systems seem unthinkable.  Finland’s schools are frequently cited as one of Europe’s most consistently successful systems, yet nary a peep from commentators outside educational circles. It’s fascinating that the most watched TED talk is by a British education thinker who is roundly ignored in Britain, namely one Sir Ken Robinson. His talk ‘How Schools Kill Creativity’ has been watched 33,320,445 times (and counting). Professor Maurice Holt’s thinking on slow and deep education has attracted international critical acclaim, but he is without honour in his own country.

Calling educationalists names like ‘the Blob’ and ‘the enemies of promise’ does gain traction, however. There are profound changes underway in the English education system at present, notably the academies and free schools programmes. Whilst attention is distracted by fond, backward glances at the good old days of selective education, no one is looking to critically at what’s happening right now under our noses. So when it comes to questioning whether the marketisation of public education is a good idea, there is a profound silence. Except on grammar schools.

Michele Lowe


C4 – Update – Improvement in the Inner City

This article was initially published in the SOSS pamphlet on London Challenge in March 2015. The world does not stand still however and Richard Sidley is working constantly with other governors on the issues facing the school – updates are supplied in this section of the site TF

Improvement in the Inner City – a practical example.

How to improve schools is an issue coming to many schools which can either have heavy top down intervention involving sackings and special measures – or a more collaborative approach. In my experience the collaborative approach works better, on the lines of London Challenge.

I am a Local Authority (LA) governor of 28 years standing of two adjoining, but separate infant and junior schools serving a socially deprived area in Stoke on Trent. This has white working class, Pakistani (third generation) and a growing East European local community. In addition by the summer term 2014, and prior to our OfSTED inspection, we had staff resignations, the challenge of filling these vacancies, against a background of poor attendance and attainment.

OfSTED gave us a “notice to improve” on the grounds of teaching and learning, attendance, behaviour, staffing and attainment. We felt fairly treated and even supported by the inspection team but, in reality, we are an HMI visit away from special measures.

The LA, which remains in control, seemed to offer only more learning reviews and mock OfSTEDs – they’d driven the staff into the ground and we feared for our future. On January 1st 2015 we had one qualified teacher – the Head teacher – that’s how bad it was! Recruitment was a priority obviously, but we had to offer a supportive environment to attract staff.

We have been given a chance with a link up with a local “outstanding” school run by a head teacher with an over view for two other “category” schools. The other schools were in Special Measures, the lowest category which involves serious changes. The lead school is a primary school serving a predominantly white working class council estate on the edge of the city. The scheme one run by the Department of Education precisely to link “Outstanding” schools with “Schools needing Improvement” where the head teacher is a National Leader in Education – as was the case here. The link offered an alternative to the previous LA model, and we accepted with a sigh of collective relief!

A supportive and collaborative model was put in place. This involves visits to the primary school by all infant teachers and support staff. We can visit our link school, and that means all teaching and support staff. More important is that our link staff will come to us and jointly plan, team teach, model teaching and work in pairs to drive up improvement in our school. Our head teacher has a mentor and much needed support and the governors too.

The infant school head is being supported by the head of the successful primary school. All the work on the post OfSTED action plan is shared with this head, as are decisions on staffing. The relationship is definitely one of support rather than one of the supporting head taking over the

running of the school which is why the word “mentor” is more appropriate than “super head”.

We all feel valued, because we work at the the sharp end of teaching and we share our professional expertise with colleagues who don’t work in a community where social cohesion is a pressing issue every day of the week!

But most of all we are part of a whole school Continuing Professional Development programme which is about school improvement and developing professionalism rather than imposing a punitive and judgemental model on a de-moralised workforce. There a clear link here with the London Challenge improvement model.


Richard Sidley

R1 – Progressively Worse

This was initially published in the Forum for Comprehensive Education journal. Thanks to the editors for allowing this to be republished. TF.

FORUM review by Pat Yarker

Progressively Worse: The burden of bad ideas in British schools


London: Civitas

298 pages (paperback) £14.00 ISBN 978-1-906837-62-4

In this book Robert Peal mounts a two-pronged attack on what he regards as progressive education. One prong attempts to skewer some aspects of pedagogy.   The other, a historical narrative of ‘teaching methods and school organisation from the early 1960s to today’ (p.10), probes how, in Peal’s view, progressive education became established as orthodoxy. Peal discerns an educational establishment comprising teacher-training colleges, OfSTED, government agencies, teaching unions and local authorities.

An introduction sets out what Peal asserts are the cardinal beliefs of progressive educators. Four main themes combine to characterise the sort of education to which he is opposed. Peal thinks progressive educators believe that education should be child-centred (which Peal understands to mean that ‘pupils should direct their own learning’ p.5); that knowledge is not central to education; that strict discipline and moral education are oppressive; and that success in school (for Peal, academic performance ) is dictated by the child’s socio-economic background. In Peal’s view: ‘these … underlying principles still govern the behaviour of many British teachers. This surrender of worldly knowledge to the existing interests of the child, and the dethroning of the teacher as both a moral and subject authority, have led to a profound dumbing-down in our schools. As such, it is reasonable to conclude that progressive education is as close as one can get to the root cause of educational failure in Britain.’ (p. 8)

In his account of the educational history of the past half-century Peal remarks on educational thinkers and practitioners such as Rousseau, Dewey, Montessori, Isaacs, Piaget and Vygotsky, and on Education Secretaries from Mark Carlisle onwards. His rapid overview takes in ways of teaching children to read, the movement towards comprehensivisation, individual schools (Summerhill, Risinghill, Creighton, William Tyndale, Highbury Grove and Countesthorpe are all looked at), the Plowden Report and Callaghan’s Great Debate, the introduction of the National Curriculum, the formation of OfSTED, and New Labour’s flagship innovations such as the National Literacy Strategy, City Academies and the Teach First programme through which Peal became a teacher.

In the section devoted to pedagogy, Peal returns to his four core-themes and seeks to expose each as at best ineffective and at worst highly detrimental when it comes to learning. He challenges child-centred education (as he defines it) on several grounds. He believes it is founded on a ‘romantic conviction in the self-educating powers of the child’ (p. 181) and on ‘the constructivist theory of teaching’ (p. 187) which Peal says emerged from Piagetian constructivism. He considers that those who espouse child-centred education believe ‘learning is more likely to occur if a pupil finds something out for himself or herself’ (p. 179), and that ‘today’s teachers are led to believe the less teaching they do, the better they are’ (p. 180). His opposition to such views is buttressed by empirical research apparently demonstrating that ‘teacher-led instruction is the most effective basis for teaching’ (p. 187). He turns to cognitive science to endorse his claim that ‘we should focus on knowledge then skills…. knowledge must come before complex cognition’ (p. 203; original emphasis). He deprecates attempts by teachers to make curriculum content relevant: ‘[s]uch an approach robs academic subjects of the majesty that makes them worthy of study in the first place’ (p. 214). He believes that schools have neglected their proper nurturing function and have granted children ‘the freedom to develop without restraint’ (p. 221). Adults have abnegated their authority during the period under review. Headteachers in particular have stopped being ‘the moral arbiter of the school community’ (p. 225). British state schools, unlike public schools or the KIPP charter-school chain in the USA, have not taken a lead in forming character and instilling virtues, for example through ‘prize-giving, competitive sports, prefects, mottos, hymns, assemblies, traditional rituals, rewards and sanctions’ (p. 232). Determinist assumptions about pupils based on their social origins have fostered low expectations about certain cohorts, and have prevented teachers from seeing themselves as agents of change. School can indeed compensate for society, provided the school is properly established, organised and run.

In a brief conclusion, Peal once more castigates the state education sector for its adherence to progressive education, a way of thinking which holds sway ‘not through proven effectiveness but due to its intuitive appeal to our modern sympathies’ (p. 260). By this he means a fatal willingness on the part of ‘the idealistic teacher [to grant] our pupils more freedom, more independence and more autonomy” (p. 260). What at the outset of his book he calls ‘the underlying philosophy of our state education system’ (p. 10) he finds harder to define at the conclusion: ‘Progressive education in the state sector… cannot be boiled down to an institution, a list of practices or even a set of clearly-defined ideas’ (p. 263), an assertion at odds with the approach he has taken throughout. Peal concludes that progressive education ‘has become more of a temperament, or a mindset, which dictates the numberless interactions and decisions made every day by teachers across Britain’ (p. 263). He hails the Free Schools movement as the best hope for overthrowing what he takes to be current orthodoxy. Peal claims that ‘[b]y enabling groups and individuals to set up new schools outside of the educational establishment, current reforms will allow fresh ideas finally to be injected into state education.’ (p. 266) By fresh ideas, he means a version of classroom-teaching characterised by: ‘Direct Instruction… repeated practice of procedures… drilling… testing… formal methods of teaching… the structure and even the coercion of an authoritative teacher… [placing] academic knowledge at the core of the curriculum… learning then doing… [teaching] a prescribed core of knowledge.’ (p. 184, p. 191, p. 194, p.200, p.204, p. 208). His book contains almost five hundred end-notes, a Select Bibliography and an index. It comes with a cover-puff from Michael Gove.

Educational insurgents

I hope I have given an accurate summary of the main elements in Peal’s analysis and critique. It is important to be clear about the case being put, and the ways in which it is put, because in my view Peal’s book is intended as a highly-political intervention, albeit in what purports to be scholarly guise, on the side of those attempting to change in deeply reactionary ways the terms of public discourse about teaching and learning in England’s state schools. (Despite the promise of his alliterative subtitle, Peal has nothing to say about schools outside England.) Peal’s is one of a spate of recent publications by a coterie including Toby Young, Katherine Birbalsingh, Daisy Christodoulou and Miriam Gross (all of whom figure in Peal’s text) who repeat claims and complaints about schools and schooling familiar from the days of the inaugural Black Paper of 1969, if not before. Their forebears in the traditionalist camp saw themselves as defenders of a threatened status quo. What is new in Peal is the characterisation of progressive education not as ‘extremist nonsense… the new fashionable anarchy’ as the editors of that first Black Paper put it, but as a settled hegemony, embedded to the point of being outworn, in a sense ‘traditional’. In taking on the ideas of his establishment, a phantasmagoric assembly where NUT militants make solidarity with government officials and classroom teachers find common cause with OfSTED inspectors, Peal and his ilk attempt to pose as educational insurgents, trenchant in their thorough-going scrutiny and fearless in their trashing of shibboleths.

Contributors to the Black Papers asserted without substance, assumed without evidence and unhesitatingly catastrophised about the condition of state education. Peal follows suit in a text riddled with errors of fact and reference, ignorant of the writings it seeks to disparage, tendentiously-selective in its use of quotation and not above the occasional ad hominem attack (for example at the start of chapter 9).

Peal believes the rot began with Rousseau but really took hold with John Dewey, whose work he either entirely misconceives or has not read. He claims The School and Society (1900) and The Child and the Curriculum (1902) are Dewey’s ‘two most important books on education’ (p. 18), as if Democracy and Education had never been written. Democracy and Education, in which Peal may read Dewey’s judicious consideration of and departure from the ideas of Rousseau, and follow a long and sophisticated thinking-through of what it means to be a teacher, and learn from a sustained focus on education’s social purposes, and be informed finally about moral education, character-formation and the relationship between knowledge and conduct. By neglecting Dewey’s magnum opus Peal neglects his own declared concerns. This raises a question about his real intentions.

Peal further claims that ‘Dewey renounced many of [his] earlier beliefs in Education and Experience (1938) and admitted that he had underestimated the need for direct teacher instruction’ (p. 18). Dewey would have found this hard to do since he wrote no such book, though he did publish Experience and Education in 1938, the first chapter of which considers ‘Traditional vs Progressive Education’. In it Dewey outlines the traditionalist contention that it is the main business of the school to transmit bodies of information and of skills to a new generation, to engage in ‘moral training’ in conformity with developed rules and standards, and to require teachers to be authoritative and in charge while students are docile, receptive and obedient. Dewey passes no judgement on this approach here. He does note that ‘progressive education’ arises out of discontent with, and criticism of, such an approach, and he sketches the lineaments of that discontent and criticism, along with some problems and pitfalls likely to face what he calls the new education. In engaging like Peal with these issues, Dewey offers readers what Peal does not: a non-partisan, untendentious account of the essence of what is at stake.

Errors and lapses

To fumble a book-title is a small thing. But Peal errs again and again in matters of fact. Dewey’s school in Chicago grows under Peal’s attentions into a chain of ‘experimental schools’ (p. 18). The headteacher of Risinghill, Michael Duane, is misnamed whenever mentioned (pp.31-2). In criticising Countesthorpe College Peal claims that ‘[a]n inspector arrived in November …’ (p. 59) when the source he is using makes clear that a team of inspectors turned up at the school, in October (Watts, 1977, p. 39). Peal dates the ORACLE study to 1980 (p. 79) although it took place between 1975 and that year. He calls Lev Vygotsky ‘Jean Vygotsky’ (p. 188), inadvertently conflating two of his bêtes noir, the Soviet researcher and his Swiss contemporary Jean Piaget. He claims that ‘[d]uring the 1960s and 1970s… British society was experiencing a crisis of adult authority’ (p. 224) and blames this in part on Adorno’s The Authoritarian Personality; not bad going for a text published in 1950. He says that in the Milgram study ‘participants famously inflicted electric shocks on other volunteers when ordered to do so’ (p. 224) whereas, famously, they did no such thing.

Such lapses serve as a warning to any half-alert reader: the scatter of pebbles preceding the landslip. But what shakes to its foundations trust in this author’s essential good faith is his habitual misuse of sources. For example, in considering Counteshorpe College Peal asserts (without supporting reference) that the implementation there of ‘a child-centred vision [saw] a rapid decline in pupil attainment’ (p. 149). But the single source Peal draws on for all his comments about Countesthorpe tells a different story about attainment at the College:

The inspectors had found … GCE exam results neither better nor worse than they would have expected at that stage of a new school’s development, and were confident that they             would improve. CSE results were generally sound and in some cases impressive. (Watts,           1977, p. 39)

A few pages late the same account says this:

In 1974, on the local authority’s figures, 26.95% of the Countesthorpe intake (four-fifths   comprehensive from the county, one-fifth 11-plus failures from the city system) got three or more O levels. The 1974 figure for the fully comprehensive county upper schools was     30.06%. In the city’s selective system… 25.50% got three or more O levels. (Watts, 1977, p.             45)

Peal is similarly untrustworthy in his presentation of Robin Pedley’s book The Comprehensive School. He claims that in it Pedley:

‘derided his own grammar school education, mocking the “elaborate apparatus devised to            get boys to do what the staff wanted” and disparaging the use of essays and tests, quotas of    marks, colours, house points, prizes and lines. Having been copied from the “Public School        Olympians” he seemed to believe that these “formal rituals” had no place in a           comprehensive school.’ (p. 35).

Robin Pedley was a founding editor of this journal, so I have a particular incentive for checking what he actually wrote. Since it is Pedley’s tone which is in question, as well as his general stance towards his grammar-school, a long quotation is necessary:

Inside the [grammar] school, too, my life was turned upside down. It was not only that for          the first time I encountered such subjects as Latin and French, physics, and chemistry,          algebra and geometry; I had expected that. What amazed me was the elaborate apparatus devised to get boys to do what the staff wanted. Essays and tests all reaped their quota of      marks, religiously added up and announced at half term and end of term. There were       colours for doing well at rugger and cricket; points for one’s house, prizes for this, lines or       even the cane for that… I was surprised, because none of this was known in my little village        school, where we worked (and at the appropriate time played) because after all wasn’t that           what we went to school for? I was more than surprised, I was bewildered, because, despite          this host of incentives, most of the grammar-school pupils were more reluctant to do their       best than any of my fellows in the village. Yet for classroom competence, devotion to their          job, and interest in their pupils’ progress, the grammar-school staff could not have been     bettered. It was the system that was different. I had still to learn that there was yet a third           world of ‘public’ schools operating on a level as remote from the grammar school as the         latter was from the elementary school. The grammar school’s strangely formal rituals were           in fact copied from the ‘public’ school Olympians. Its best features–the teachers’ deep           interest in and concern for every pupil, complemented by the town’s pride in its little      ancient school–sprang from the school’s roots in the local community.   (Pedley 1978, p. 35-  6; original ellipsis)

Readers may judge the accuracy of Peal’s characterisation. For myself, I do not think the tone of this passage may justly be described as one of derision, mockery and disparagement, nor do I think any of those verdicts applies to a single sentence of it. Readers may also note Peal’s act of censorship: ‘[p]rizes and lines’ (p. 35) quotes Peal; ‘prizes for this, lines or even the cane for that’ reads the original (Pedley 1978, p. 35). Peal, who approves an authoritative teacher’s using ‘coercion’ (p. 195), says as little as possible about corporal punishment. He mentions in passing a handful of times that distinguishing feature of schooling in the Sixties, Seventies, and (apart from within a few LEAs) most of the Eighties (p. 11, p. 34, in a quotation on p. 35, p. 39, p. 58). Any less hasty acknowledgement that a practice so contrary to the tenets of ‘child-centredness’ nevertheless endured for half the period under review might prompt a reader to query the truth of Peal’s panorama of rampant progressiveness.

Inaccuracies and deceptions

Peal cites Pedley again when he considers comprehensivisation and the introduction of what he regards as a diminished role for teachers: from ‘conveyor of knowledge’ to ‘mediator of learning resources’ within a ‘mixed ability’ classroom (p. 37):

Pedley also endorsed this change, writing the teacher’s prime task was to assemble          resources from which individual pupils could devise their own lessons… (p. 37)

Peal is inaccurate here: the task Peal calls ‘prime’ is the second of five requirements Pedley lists. The first (and so surely the prime) is that the teacher not dominate and stimulate the class from the front, but move around helping individuals and groups as they need it. The task of collecting, creating and assembling resources (Pedley, 1978, p. 106; not p. 105 as cited by Peal) is augmented by other activities and concerns: the teacher of a ‘mixed ability’ class must be a ‘good organiser’, and ‘keep a close eye on where each of the… pupils in his class has got to in his studies, and what his next steps are going to be’ (Pedley, 1978, p. 106). Teachers must also spend a lot of time discussing teaching methods and assessment techniques, and whether the syllabus is being ‘adequately covered by the pupils’ (Pedley, 1978, p. 106). By ignoring Pedley’s focus on the detail and variety, skill and responsibility of the teacher’s role in ensuring children’s learning and development, Peal is more than inaccurate. He misleads his readers about a central matter.

From among many another I will give one last example of Peal’s deceptive use of source-material. In attacking what he takes to be child-centred learning, Peal lists seven alleged varieties: ‘independent learning… discovery learning, active learning, incidental learning, personalised learning, group work and project work’ (p. 181). He writes:

One psychologist has speculated that this diverse terminology exists because each time    child-centred learning is discredited, it has to reinvent itself under a new guise. (p. 181)

To support this claim, Peal gives an end-note reference to a paper by R. E. Mayer. The reference is to the whole text, not to any page containing the apparent speculation. Wisely so, because Mayer nowhere says what Peal would have him say. His paper looks at several decades’ research into the inadequacy of what he calls ‘pure discovery’ methods used in some US classrooms, not at the much broader concept of ‘child-centred learning’. Mayer does state that:

Like some zombie that keeps returning from its grave, pure discovery continues to have its           advocates. (Mayer, p. 17)

But this is not Peal’s claim. Even more unhappily for Peal, Mayer doesn’t scorn the constructivism Peal detests; he upholds it:

I start this article with the premise that there is merit in the constructivist vision of learning         as knowledge construction…   I do not object to the idea that constructivist learning is a        worthwhile goal, but rather I object to the idea that constructivist teaching should be       restricted to pure discovery methods. (Mayer, p. 13, p. 14)

Peal’s questionable readings of texts, notably those with which he is out of sympathy , and his consistent inability to convey accurately what writers actually wrote, help demolish his own credibility. So too does his habit of assuming without evidence, or even against the evidence. Here he is on what the ORACLE researchers supposedly failed to notice in post-Plowden primary classrooms:

… the ORACLE research did not pick up on the more subtle ways in which Plowden’s ideas        had percolated through primary schools. Pupils may have been doing maths and English,       but they were likely to be pursuing the progressive innovations of look-say and new maths.          Lessons may have been at times teacher-led, but they probably did not contain clear discipline, silent study, homework or testing (p. 80; emphases added)

Four volumes of ORACLE research are set aside by Peal in favour of what he thinks was ‘probably’ going on. (He takes a similar approach with reference to the Steer Report on behaviour in schools, p. 165, and in his comments on Benn and Chitty’s Thirty Years On, p. 124) How has he come by his superior knowledge? Peal’s willingness to adopt this tactic contrasts markedly with the intellectual honesty displayed by the ORACLE researchers. But Peal finds intellectual honesty odd in itself:

Strangely for a one time educational progressive such as Simon, the researchers concluded            that progressive education in primary schools was neither widespread, nor effective. Their   research showed that British primary schools still emphasised English and maths… (p. 80;          emphasis added)

Brian Simon’s name doesn’t feature in the index, nor his writings in the Select Bibliography. The same can be said of Susan Isaacs, whose ‘lasting legacy’ (pp. 19-20) according to Peal is not her groundbreaking observational research at the Malting House school (work which Peal appears entirely ignorant of, since it goes unmentioned) but her perceived popularisation of Piagetian ideas. Maria Montessori merits short shrift too. Writing of Pestalozzi and Froebel, Peal adds that Montessori ‘would devise her own Montessori Method based on similar principles’ (p. 18). She is name-checked twice more, and can be found in the index, but like Isaacs her contribution is slightly-regarded in itself and subordinated to that of a male peer or peers. The likelihood that sexism as well as ignorance operates here is strengthened by an extraordinary statement Peal makes in connection with the 1870 Elementary Education Act. Peal says:

It is no coincidence that the Act was passed three years after Benjamin Disraeli granted the           vote to Britain’s urban working class for the first time. (p. 255)

If only those female members of Britain’s urban working-class had understood how, thanks to Disraeli’s munificence, they were already in possession of that which many would spend the next half-century and more being beaten by police and tortured in jail to secure…. Robert Peal, the author’s note informs me, is a Cambridge graduate and took a starred first. In history.


Peal’s book is not written to inform or elucidate. Peal reprises ham-fistedly a set of reductive tropes about ‘progressive education’ which, for all his repetition of them, remain as false now as ever they were, and his historical account is the familiar right-wing version. His book is yet another polemic, written to bolster discursive power for a particular faction, to become a work others can reference in support of a shared political agenda or wield to influence uninformed opinion more broadly. Its writing-style is a rhetoric shaped to this end, not to the better grounding of truth. Assertive and declaratory rather than tentative and ready to listen, it mistakes certitude for insight and conviction for reality. Here are some examples:

The fact that today’s schools produce pupils who do not know a great deal… (p. 215)

With few exceptions, subject knowledge tends to be ignored during teacher training courses          in favour of the dismal science of pedagogy. (p. 198)

Hard work is not a fashionable concept in today’s schools. (p. 195)

As the 1980s began, the disorderly classroom of the 1970s became the norm. (p. 73)

Is it a ‘fact’ that today’s schools ‘produce pupils’ who so lack in knowledge? What does Peal mean by ‘not knowing a great deal’? Is pedagogy a ‘science’, dismal or otherwise? Why not an art and a craft too, as Robin Alexander has it? Does subject-knowledge tend to be’ ignored’ in ITE? Has hard work fallen out of fashion as a ‘concept” among teachers? Were the classrooms of the 1970s ‘disorderly’? Were those of the early 1980s? By choosing to pronounce rather than to inquire, Peal feeds prejudice rather than discernment.

He himself is undiscerning from the outset. His opening sentence asks ‘How should children learn?’ (p. 1) rather than ‘How do children learn?’ What children actually do as learners never detains him. If he stops to consider the child as already a learner, and ‘learning’ as the child’s condition of living, it is to decide either that the child really isn’t a learner, or is a poor one:

This is not to say that pupil-led activities have no place in the classroom… What they are not      is a superior means of acquiring initial knowledge. (p. 191; original emphasis)

Whilst humans are naturally curious, they avoid thinking unless the cognitive conditions are        favourable…(pp. 194-5)

Children are not independent rational agents; they are vulnerable and impressionable, and             require the benevolent authority of adults and institutions. (p. 221)

Progressive education relies on the twin premises that children are naturally effective        learners, and that they are innately good… [B]oth beliefs are misguided. (p. 240)

Given these views, Peal would seem to have no way of explaining how a child learns to recognise her parents’ faces, or to walk, or to talk. What would Peal offer the pre-school child as ‘a superior means of acquiring initial knowledge’ other than child-led activities? How else, after all, can the infant child acquire literally ‘initial’ knowledge?   What would he say to the likes of Paul Bissex, who taught himself to read and write at five, as his mother documents in a book (Bissex, 1980) which by itself (though there are many similar examples) gives the empirical lie to Peal’s impoverished thesis? Peal’s is an all-or-nothing view in which children cannot be both independent rational agents and also vulnerable, impressionable and in need of benevolent adults.   Stepping out on the wrong foot, he never finds his way. He seems to think that someone other than the child herself is in charge of her own learning, and that learning itself has no degrees:

This re-conceptualisation of children as the drivers of their own learning implies that pupils          will only learn if they make the autonomous decision to do so. Any learning achieved             through the gently coercive furniture of formal school life (test, homework, practice          exercises, memorisation) is somehow seen as superficial. Instead teachers are charged with       imbuing pupils with an intrinsic motivation to learn… (p. 180)

But teachers are not so charged. Teachers understand that every child is already imbued with intrinsic motivation. Teachers are charged with trying to harness it, direct it, validate it, gratify it… Perhaps Peal finds this fundamental conception of the child as always already a learner, and a capable one, too threatening. As well he might, since to understand the child this way is to ensure a conduit for the new, and even for the revolutionary.

Shared interests and contempt

Civitas, a right-wing think-tank with an edu-business arm, brought out Peal’s book. He has been ill-served by his publishers. There are more errors in the main text (and in the bibliography and the end-notes) than I have listed, and the index is inadequate.   But care in the production of the book has been of no more account, I suppose, than care in the production of its arguments. What matters seems to have been mutual aggrandisement. Civitas makes money out of textbooks, for example, and textbooks are a vital component in the ‘knowledge-centred’ approach to education which Peal advocates. As well as running Saturday schools (and employing people without teaching qualifications to work in them) Civitas set up a company which now runs two fee-paying primary schools in London. Its website states:

Our task of delivering a knowledge-rich education has been helped by the donation by     Civitas of classroom sets of books published by them. Titled What Your Year (1/2/3/4/5/6)       Child Needs to Know, they are British versions of the subject-based and knowledge-based            textbooks pioneered by the Core Knowledge Foundation in the USA, set up by E. D Hirsch.      (New Model Schools website)

Peal spends half-a-dozen pages lauding E.D. Hirsch (pp. 206-11) and he holds textbooks in high esteem. He neglects to declare his publisher’s interest.

Nor does he address obvious questions about who decides what it is that ‘your child needs to know’, and on what basis. For Peal, that which comprises necessary core knowledge is already fixed, given and uncontentious. Teachers need only transmit it. His commitment to transmission-teaching culminates in a spasm of hectoring, during which he betrays a traditionalist version of the romanticism he is so ready to reprimand in progressives:

Schools must rediscover the conviction that some knowledge about the world… is an      invaluable inheritance to pass on to any pupil… Through pursuing a school curriculum that is            unashamedly irrelevant, and pays little heed to a child’s immediate concerns, an education            based on knowledge encourages pupils to look beyond the temporal and geographical             parochialism of their own existence and understand their life within the greater story of     mankind’s performances and capabilities. (p. 216)

Peal’s contempt here for what his pupils already know and are concerned with is not an aberration. Nor is the haughtiness which can label his pupils’ lives, or rather the lives he assumes they lead, as parochial. (Once again, how does he know?) Such a stance towards pupils, presumably including the pupils in his own classroom, is part and parcel of his general position. By adopting it, he burns the bridge before he can build it between the ‘invaluable inheritance’ of canonical knowledge to which every child is indeed heir, and that same child’s lived experience. Or, as someone long ago better put it: ‘How shall the young become acquainted with the past in such a way that the acquaintance is a potent agent in appreciation of the living present?’ (Dewey 1938, p.23) Peal flourishes a Core Knowledge textbook as the answer, and urges drilling and Direct Instruction as the means, when he hasn’t even recognised the scope and profundity of the question. Unless he looks beyond the circle of his current acquaintance, intellectual and political, he never will.


Bissex, G. (1980) GNYS AT WRK: A Child Learns to Write and Read. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press

Dewey, J. (1938) Experience and Education. New York: Touchstone

Mayer, R. (2004) Should There Be A Three-Strikes Rule Against Pure Discovery Learning? The Case for Guided Methods of Instruction. American Psychologist, 59(1), 14-19.

Pedley, R. (1978) The Comprehensive School. Harmondsworth: Penguin

Watts, J. (Ed.) (1977) The Countesthorpe Experience. London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd.