Progressively Worse

01 April 2015
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progressivelyworse1Progressively Worse, by Robert Peal

Civitas  (ISBN: 9781906837624)

David Hansen

I quite like the idea of Summerhill and the like. I don't have a fundamentalist belief in it - I've never even visited the place - but I find it all very interesting. I also believe that there are elements of traditional education, including some elements promoted in this book, that would do a lot of good to some children, if applied appropriately.

This was an interesting enough read. There were elements of it I enjoyed and sometimes I found myself nodding in agreement. One such element that sticks out is a point made in the preface:- one can easily to go through teacher training without actually being introduced to the idea that there is an ongoing debate about how best to teach. This is largely in line with my own experience, and it was a source of great bafflement to me that many other trainees were going along with things without questioning them. That's not to say that I am some great critical thinker, but just that I had already spent a fair bit of time reading about it all before I started the PGCE. It is also true that 'big ideas' about education are not usually spoken about in the school staffrooms that I've been in. This may be due to the 'indoctrination towards the assumptions of progressive education' (as this book would have it), but I think most teachers being so busy has something to do with it too. Whatever the reasons, though, it is an interesting point.

My heart dropped, though, when I read Robert Peal's unbelievably simplistic explanation of 'progressive education'. Summerhill, for example, is summarised in a few lines as a place where children are encouraged to swim naked, and where A S Neill used to offer cigarettes to students. These anecdotes are mentioned briefly in Neill's own books, but are hardly relevant to the overarching philosophy of the school and I am not sure what mentioning them here achieves other than to serve as a cheap attempt to offend some reader's sensibilities. It's just a bit tacky. It is interesting also to read how the book promotes the importance of the 'gentle coercion' of traditional schooling in developing self-discipline and so on, and yet mentions that Summerhill achieved only just below the national average for GCSE results in 2012. These GCSE results are expressed in a negative light in the book, but for a school to let kids do whatever they want all day and even approach national averages tells me that perhaps there may be something there worth considering. And, of course, that it is the only year of Summerhill's GCSE results reported in this book. The school has often exceeded national averages in the past -  and all, I repeat, while giving the kids freedom to do what they like and not bother going to lessons if they don't want to. These facts somewhat undermine the central thesis of this book, though, which I assume is why they are not mentioned.

This may also be why, when Robert Peal uses the PISA tables to argue that 'progressive education is as close as one can get to the root cause of educational failure in Britain', he does not mention that the Finland. which has a very progressive education system by anyone's standards, is regularly among the leaders in those same tables. Regardless of whether one believes in traditional, progressive, radical or whatever kind of education, it seems clear that either this book is very badly researched or else any evidence which contradicts its central thesis is deliberately ignored. As the book has been published by a think tank, the latter possibility seems the most likely one to me.
The book takes Summerhill (and some other examples) and tries to explain their approach as the root cause of, seemingly, all of the problems in British schools today. What makes this particularly unlikely, apart what has already been mentioned above, is that Summerhill, and Sands, and the Sudbury Valley schools, and even the schools Carl Rogers was involved with when he was alive, are fundamentally different from any state-funded UK school that I am aware of.

I quite enjoyed some of Peal's criticisms of mainstream education, but at best this is an argument against the poor application of certain ideas rather than the ideas themselves. I have to admit that I can't say much either way about the schools of the 70's as I wasn't alive at that time, but I do not see that many of the ideas of Summerhill or Carl Rogers have anything in common with mainstream schools today. Nevertheless everything is tenuously lumped together here as 'progressive education,' which is seen as a horrible, dogmatic brain disease that needs eradicating.
Many of  Peal's criticisms I actually find myself in agreement with.  VAK and the whole 'multiple intelligences' idea, for instance,  I have found it interesting to think about but they are not generally accepted ideas, and I agree that regarding theories like these as established fact and throwing them into schools without the requisite evidence is very questionable. However this is just an example of people throwing things into schools without properly thinking it through, and I do not see what this has to do with Summerhill or Carl Rogers. It is a tenuous link, at best. Tenuously linked ideas are collected together in this book as 'progressive education', a monolithic, homogeneous behemoth. This is reductionism at its worst.

The fundamental objection I have to this book arises from a crazy belief I have that if you are going to put a piece of writing into the public domain, it is your fundamental responsibility to try to be as balanced as possible. If you are not even going to try to be balanced, you should at least be honest and make it absolutely clear that you are only expressing your opinion. If you can't do either of these things, you should keep your thoughts to yourself.


#2 David Hansen 2015-04-22 20:56
Hi Hussain, what a great coincidence! I read your book just a few weeks ago, after writing the review and deciding to look for exactly that - outcomes over theory. I found it very interesting and I found it gave a great insight into the school and the people who have left. Although it was generally very positive, I found it particularly interesting (and quite refreshing in a way) to hear some of the people actually being unsure of aspects of Summerhill too. Also, being just a few years out of university myself, it was great to read the perspectives of some of the older people as they looked back on their lives. Thanks for getting the book together and putting it out there! Regards, David
#1 Hussein Lucas 2015-04-07 16:00
Dear David, I like your review. I hear the same ignorant, ill-informed and dismissive remarks about Summerhill all the time. I began my book "After Summerhill" because I was interested in outcomes rather than theory. Perhaps you'd like to read it. Best wishes, Hussein Lucas.

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