Plowden (1967)

Background notes

Volume 1 (The Report)

Volume 2 (Research and Surveys)


published in 1987 on Plowden's twentieth anniversary.

AH Halsey and Kathy Sylva
Plowden: history and prospect
Maurice Kogan
The Plowden Report twenty years on
George Smith
Whatever happened to educational priority areas?
David Winkley
From condescension to complexity: post-Plowden schooling in the inner city
Neville Bennett
Changing perspectives on teaching-learning processes in the post-Plowden era
Maurice Galton
Change and continuity in the primary school: the research evidence
Philip Gammage
Chinese whispers
Andrew M Wilkinson
Aspects of communication and the Plowden Report
Bridget Plowden
'Plowden' twenty years on

The Oxford Review of Education articles were prepared by Derek Gillard and uploaded on 3 January 2005.

Plowden: history and prospect
AH Halsey and Kathy Sylva

Introduction to the special Plowden Twenty Years On edition of the Oxford Review of Education Volume 13 Number 1 1987

Copyright 1987 Carfax Publishing
This article was first published in the Oxford Review of Education Vol. 13 No. 1 1987. It is reproduced here by kind permission of Taylor & Francis Ltd, owners of Carfax Publishing, and with the approval of the authors.

Page numbers are from the journal.

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Plowden: history and prospect



That this Review should revisit the Plowden Report after twenty years was a suggestion not to be refused. Children and Their Primary Schools was the last delivery to government from the Central Advisory Council for Education. Anthony Crosland, the Secretary of State at the DES, surprised me on the day after publication in 1967 by confident assertion that it was the last of the line. His confidence was based on the instinct of an outstanding politician that the amiable reflections of an essentially amateur Establishment of the 'great and good' were too unwieldy and too slow to be of service to modern government. He already had the notion that planning backed by economic and sociological research could be internalised into DES administration in such a way as to enable an energetic Secretary of State to link social scientific knowledge to political and popular opinion as it expressed itself in Westminster. I, as his part-time adviser, needed no persuasion then, being an enthusiast for the potential capacity of social science to raise the level of political debate and, in the mood of the 1960s, ambivalent if not hostile to the role of the establishment as a benign brake on the engine of progress towards democratic socialism in Britain.

Crosland was right: there have been no CACE reports since Plowden and the apparatus has now been dismantled. Whether both Crosland and I were wrong in our optimism that the relation between government and social science could be developed as a powerful source of guidance to policy and thus as a means to promoting the wealth and welfare of the nation is a more difficult question to which we hoped commissioned papers might contribute answers.


So we sought contributors of two kinds - those who knew the subsequent political and administrative history of education and those who had been involved in subsequent research in and on schools. Some key figures, alas, we could not ask. Anthony Crosland and Edward Boyle among politicians, Derek Morrell and Ralph Fletcher among DES officials, Sir Lionel Russell among Chief Education Officers and Alan Little among researchers have all in the meantime died. But we were able to turn to Lady Plowden herself, to Maurice Kogan who was the Secretary to the Committee, to George Smith who had joined the EPA Action-Research Programme in 1968 and has maintained his interest ever since, to David Winkley who is distinguished for his heroic pragmatism in the running of an ethnically mixed inner city primary school and to Roger Scruton* who

[*The article by Roger Scruton is not currently online.]

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has emerged in recent years as the leading voice of what was called the 'black paper' view in the early Plowden years. For classroom research we turned to Neville Bennett and Maurice Galton, both skilled investigators of life inside classrooms and its effects on pupil performance. For a 'balance sheet' on current practice and teacher education we turned to Philip Gammage, and to Andrew Wilkinson for specialist knowledge about the contribution of Plowden to language teaching. Finally, we sought from Karl Gruber* the views of a European on the impact of the Report on educational debate and practice outside Britain, in this case Germany and Austria. Thus our contributors range in their discussions from global perspectives on policy formulation to the microanalysis of teacher-pupil interaction.

It is not our purpose here to rehearse the arguments and descriptions on either the policy or the research side which are set out in the papers. Our intention is, rather, to offer a context in which the papers may be read.


First we must offer some remarks on the formation as distinct from the content of policy. In the 1960s, whether or not Plowden was to be the last CACE report, the issue might have been taken to be settled. Education, and especially compulsory primary education, was firmly established as a state enterprise. Its policies were to be settled by the testing and dissemination of ideas and innovations in a decentralised system of comparatively autonomous schools and local education authorities loosely surveyed by a national inspectorate with traditions of advisory support rather than conveyance of central direction. Of course financial and legal control was ultimately in the hands of the Secretary of State answerable to Parliament. And, of course, party political policy could make its way through parliament back through the bureaucracy and the inspectorate to the schools. But, at least after the 1944 Act, the system was remarkably detached from partisan politics - a central-local-professional partnership rather passively coordinated by Whitehall. Occasional review by a CACE fitted naturally to such a system.

Experiments in the incorporation of social and psychological science have intermittently marked the subsequent history of policy making. The Schools Council, the Educational Research Board of the SSRC (now ESRC), the development of a planning division in the DES, the use of advisers to the Secretary of State and the increased frequency of reports by HM Inspectorate have all had mixed fortunes in what can be thought of as an evolution of the relation between social science and political administration.

Yet most observers will share the dissatisfied verdict of Professor Kogan that the CACE tradition is 'inadequate for the far more complex challenges of the 1980s'. We agree and would also concur that 'a more detached and expert entity capable of analysing the state of education is needed'. We would, moreover, stress both expertise and independence. Education, we suggest, needs a National Academy or Institute for policy research. Such a body should have no monopoly: indeed political parties, the professional teaching associations and the universities and polytechnics which train teachers all need the support of their own policy research if they are to function effectively. The DES must have its in-house accommodation for research in the service of policy and planning. A national institute for policy studies might well take commissioned research from any of these governmental and non-governmental organi-

[*The article by Karl Gruber is not currently online.]

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sations but should be controlled by none of them. Its responsibility would be to monitor education, to carry out empirical enquiry, to act as a forum for policy debate in the light of social and psychological knowledge and to disseminate the results of both research and debate. It would be the point at which social science and government would meet to negotiate their mutual interest - the one in objective enquiry, the other in usable knowledge.


With respect to the content of policy we may begin with the reminder that Plowden belongs to the post-war period of the thirty years in which Britain enjoyed steady economic growth (albeit with a less burgeoning plenitude than that of other Western European countries) and a political consensus concerning the balanced pursuit of freedom and equality in which both the democratic state and the school were assumed to have a large part to play. The oil crisis of 1973-74 brought that period to an end and ushered in recession and retrenchment. There followed rising levels of unemployment, a long agony of industrial reconstruction, mounting social and economic problems in the cities which had been built on classical industrialism, growing doubt and criticism about the efficacy of the central state and of organised education as means to the ends of wealth and its fair distribution and finally a sharpening of political conflict centring on the revival of doctrines of economic liberalism.

None of these developments was anticipated or could seriously have been expected to be anticipated by the authors of the two volumes presented to Crosland by Lady Plowden. It was not so much that there were no economic difficulties, and indeed Crosland's persuasion of the Cabinet to give 16m for buildings and enhancement of new school buildings in educational priority areas was considered a considerable coup at a time when the national economic plan of the Labour government of 1964-70 was failing and the Chancellor of the Exchequer was playing his customary role as a watchdog of the ambitions of spending ministers. Nor was it that cheerfulness about the efficacy of social reform towards less inequality through educational reform had been thrown into doubt as it was later to be in the wake of the failed hopes of the American war on poverty and the attack mounted by such writers as Christopher Jencks. The difficulties were thought of more in terms of limits to the rising proportion of GNP spent on education in competition with the demands from other fields of social policy including housing, health and social services. Moreover the programme of expansion in higher education launched before but associated mostly with the Robbins Report of 1963 made Crosland and his circle aware that a very large commitment of public expenditure had already mortgaged educational policy for the 1970s. The binary system has to be understood in these terms. And there was still the unsolved problem of private schooling which Crosland fended off, against my passionate advice, with yet another commission of enquiry.

In this context the Plowden Report seemed to me at the time to be a welcome push in the direction of solving the central problem of educational inequality through its concern with the mainstream of state-provided schools for the vast majority as distinct from concern with the superstructure of higher education - a stage by which social inequality through selection was not directly remediable - or with the declining fringe of marketed education for the well-to-do which could, I thought and think, be dealt with by a combination of improving standards in the state system and a bargain with

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the 'public' or 'commercial' schools that their continued existence is tolerated on condition of per capita resources equal to those spent on equivalent forms of education in the public mainstream.


It was against this background that some of us took up the main policy messages of Plowden, i.e. positive discrimination through an EPA area policy, the development of pre-schooling in the same terms, and third, the fostering of the idea of the community school so that a new partnership between parents and teachers could emerge as a force enabling every EPA community to stand on its own feet like any other and rejuvenate its own world.

At first things went well. Michael Young had been an inventive and persistent proponent of these ideas in the Plowden Committee and had become the Chairman of the SSRC. Crosland was sceptically enthusiastic about the idea of action research in EPAs to develop in the British context what he hoped might become a viable geographical theory of social deprivation. Together we devised an EPA programme for a three-year cycle of action research funded jointly by the DES (action) and SSRC (research) based independently in the Department of Social and Administrative Studies in Oxford and located in four deprived districts in England as well as an associated project in Scotland where LEA cooperation was secured. Enthusiastic staff were recruited, notably Eric Midwinter in Liverpool, and thus a programme conceived in Curzon Street, born in Oxford and brought up in Deptford, Birmingham, Liverpool, the West Riding and Dundee was finally returned as a mature set of findings and recommendations to Mrs Thatcher, the newly arrived Secretary of State at the DES under the Heath government.

One of my most vivid memories is of a long discussion with Mrs Thatcher of the concept of positive discrimination from which I learned in 1972 that the political redefinition of an expansive idea could be transformed back towards restrictionism by way of emphasis on selection in the distribution of public funds to those most in need. But at that time the Conservative administration was still thinking in expansionist terms and had yet to develop the overriding resolve to subjugate all social policy to the overriding imperative of a reduced total public expenditure. Mrs Thatcher's White Paper of 1972 had the title Education: A Framework for Expansion (CMND 5174) and clearly reflected our Plowden/EPA influence.

Nevertheless the reflections were vague, muted and partial. We had called for a particular type of pre-school programme and the government promised a Plowden level of provision. But the schedule was a slow one. The Plowden target was not to be reached until 1981 and the sums made immediately available were extremely modest. We asked for positive discrimination and Mrs Thatcher decreed 'priority will be given in the early stages of the programme to areas of disadvantage'. That was far too vague. It ought to have been written in terms of precise measurement and as an explicit financial formula. There was hopeful reference to the experience of the urban programme which used the techniques of phasing and further grant aid only after inspection. But again, a positively discriminatory programme had to have close central control. It was dangerous to leave too much to local councils. We wanted and advocated local diagnosis before plans were made for pre-school provision but within the framework of firm control at the centre for grant aid and a strong central

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organisation to ensure that the pre-school resources flowed to where they were most needed. This could not happen unless the DES was prepared to set up a division concerned with what Mrs Thatcher had invented, viz pre-schooling as a new stage of education at the foundation of the system. It also required that, for pre-schooling to flourish, there should be firm inter-departmental arrangements between the DES and the DHSS.

As a result of our EPA experiences we advocated local diagnosis and avoidance of standard national formulae as to the organisation and curricula of nursery education and the response of the White Paper was that 'the government attaches importance to a full assessment of local resources and needs, and will welcome diversity'. We advocated the hybrid vigour of professional nurseries and parent-involved play-groups and the government announced that it would guide and encourage local authorities to equip voluntary groups and provide them with qualified teachers, recognising that 'the maturity and experience (of mothers) are important assets' and that 'nursery education probably offers the best opportunities for enlisting parental understanding and support for what schools are trying to achieve'. There was no doubt that our post-Plowden EPA pronouncements had found their way into the White Paper and to a circular to local authorities as a result of our discussions with Mrs Thatcher and the civil servants in the DES. But Mrs Thatcher had been careful to define needs in terms of parental wishes - a recipe for negative discrimination or, in other words, the traditional social process of skimming. And again, diagnosis could easily and fatally be left to unguided and unaided local government interests. The educational anthropology which we had advocated as the basis for deciding on forms of provision required task forces to work with the local interests, both statutory and voluntary and both educational and social service.


The key words in both Plowden and the EPA reports were 'community' and 'equality'. For realisation they had to be set in a viable theory of community and a realistic appraisal of the role of education in social change. In the early years of EPA and CDP attempts were made to forge a theory and to develop realistic views of the possibilities of social change through education. We learnt painfully that educational reform had not in the past and was unlikely in the future ever to bring an egalitarian society unaided. Plowden policies in effect assumed fundamental reforms in the economic and social institutions of the country at large. Given these reforms, which include the devolution of power to localities, democratic control by community members over national and professional purveyors of expertise in planning, health, employment and education, income and capital equalisation, coordinated employment policies and well planned housing and civic amenities, realistic demands can be put on the education system. The schools can be asked, in partnership with the families they serve, to bring up children capable of exercising their political, economic and social rights and duties in such a society. They can be so constituted as to socialise children in anticipation of such a society: but to do so without the wider reforms is to court frustration for individuals if not disaster for the social order.

We learned in other words the complexity of social policy for a rich, fair and educated society. We learned the limitations of unaided school reform. We learned the frailties of the connection between social science knowledge and political action. And

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we learned the limitations of area policies as distinct from policies targeted on individuals and their needs.

Is it possible now to take up again the Plowden vision? The papers which follow may be read as an appraisal of the advances made in research as well as in thinking about public policy mechanisms which might give a more secure base for action than that which was possible for us in the pioneering days of the late 1960s and early 1970s.


[AH Halsey can be contacted by email.]



One might argue that the message of the Plowden report was not radically new; educational psychology had long been associated with a 'progressive' stance and more importantly many schools throughout the country were already experimenting along the lines suggested in the Report. What was new about Children and their Primary Schools was the manner in which it consistently applied these ideas to primary practice, spelling out in detail ways whereby a combination of individual, group, and class work would allow children to be 'agents of their own learning'.

The school sets out deliberately to devise the right environment for children, to allow them to be themselves and to develop in the way and at the pace appropriate for them. It tries to equalise opportunities and to compensate for handicaps. It lays special stress on individual discovery, on first hand experience and on opportunities for creative work.
Learning is seen to take place 'through a continuous process of interaction between the learner and his environment'. Moreover active learning results in 'the building up of consistent and stable patterns of behaviour, physical and mental'. Every experience 'reorganises, however slightly, the structure of the mind and contributes to the child's world picture'. Activity and direct experience are 'the best means of gaining knowledge and acquiring facts'.

The psychological theory underpinning Plowden is explicitly that of Piaget, although there was occasional mention of Bruner, Luria, and a few others. Throughout the Report the pupil is described as a Piagetian learner, one who deserves a place in the Plowden classroom nicely summarised by Galton, Simon and Croll.

If we attempt, then, a general sketch of the ideal Plowden-type teacher and her class, we get something like this. The children are active, engaged in exploration or discovery, interacting both with the teacher and with each other. Each child operates as an individual, though groups are formed and reformed related to those activities which are not normally subject differentiated. The teacher moves around the classroom, consulting, guiding, stimulating individual children or occasionally, for convenience, the groups of children which are brought together for some specific activity, or are 'at the

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same stage'. She knows each child individually, and how best to stimulate or intervene with each. In this activity she bears in mind the child's intellectual, social and physical levels of development and monitors these. On occasions the whole class is brought together, for instance for a story or music, or to spark off or finalise a class project, otherwise class teaching is seldom used, the pupils' work and the teacher's attention being individualised or 'grouped'. Inside the Primary Classroom (1980) Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Since the day of its publication the report has been under siege. Early critics questioned the view that the 'natural' child is curious, motivated to learn, and keen on discovery. Later the 'Black Paper' critics claimed that the new primary methods were causing standards to fall, with 'some teachers ... taking to extreme the belief that children should not be told anything'. In keeping with this view, Scruton's paper in this issue lays partial blame on Plowden for the disgraceful decline in standards of achievement and behaviour.


Plowden's reliance on Piaget's theory, and also its insistence that discovery learning is always best, have not stood up well to subsequent research. I shall examine the issues separately, making them the litmus against which we test Plowden twenty years on.

Plowden's relentless emphasis on children's learning through their own active efforts has come from Piaget, although others long before him took this view too. What the authors of the Report invented was the notion that teachers could and should facilitate constructive learning through everyday classroom practice. In a recent issue of the Oxford Review of Education Peter Bryant expressed his surprise that Piagetian theory should have become the cornerstone of primary practice.

One of the most obvious and at the same time most surprising things about Piaget's work is the great interest in it shown by people concerned with education ... I suspect that at bottom Piaget had little respect for the teacher's business. Yet if you look at almost any new programme for teaching science or mathematics to young children, there Piaget tangibly is. His work is cited as justification for many of the new methods and for some old ones too ... Piaget, it seems to me, thought that teachers played an insignificant role in children's cognitive development, and yet, paradoxically and almost perversely, the teachers responded to his neglect of them by trying to use his ideas to foster that development. (1984, pp. 251-252)
Even more worrying in terms of Plowden's firm basis in Piaget's theory is the gradual lessening over the last decade in acceptance of his view of cognitive development. The initial reverence has turned to scepticism, although no strong competing theory of similar breadth and depth has arisen. Critical voices are strong (See Bryant's Perception and Understanding in Young Children (1974), and Donaldson's Children's Minds (1978), with little doubt amongst psychologists that Piaget's notion of step-wise stages is wrong, as is his myopic focus on the physical environment whilst ignoring the social context in which the child grows.

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The gradual demise of Piagetian theory leaves Plowden without a theoretical base. Nevertheless, one may be sceptical of Piaget and still believe in informal educational methods. We turn now to the fate of this ideal. Has informal, child-centred practice survived twenty years of research? Yes, but only partly. A spate of research studies summarised in this volume (see especially Bennett and Galton) show that formal or traditional teaching, the kind dismissed by Plowden, appears to be associated with 'slightly increased learning gains in mathematics and language.' On the other hand, 'there may be gains in the affective domain from informal approaches'. Most of the recent studies cited here by Bennett present evidence on effective teaching practices which bear little similarity to the ideal Plowden classroom. 'Whether teachers teach in a so-called progressive or traditional mode is largely irrelevant.' What may matter more are the tasks set for children, their motivation to learn, the socially negotiated norms of classroom life, and the adequacy of teacher diagnosis of children's needs.

We turn now to the findings from surveys and intensive studies of current primary practice to see how widely Plowden's suggestions have been implemented. Gammage argues persuasively in this issue that the Plowden revolution never took place. There has not been a dramatic shift in primary practice, instead we have experienced a gradual shift towards more individual and more group work, along with more 'child-centred' tasks. The total Plowden package, including its emphasis on group discussion and on discovery learning, is rarely implemented to the full.

In summarising this discussion of the classroom side to Plowden, we are left with two widely agreed observations; that the Plowden ideal has never been fully implemented in Britain (for reasons discussed cogently by Bennett, Galton and Gammage), and that the few studies which have directly addressed its effectiveness in terms of pupil progress have found it wanting. On the other hand, the furious attacks on schools made by the 'standards are falling' critics have little empirical evidence to support them. Primary schools are largely in good health. Teachers have steered a course in the direction of Plowden's recommendations but few have gone overboard like those at the William Tyndale School. There is little evidence of falling levels of achievement; in fact Gammage argues that, if anything, there has been a rise in reading standards. Furthermore, the emphasis on parental involvement and the importance of pre-school education has become so much part of the accepted litany that we forget how new they seemed just two decades ago.


Although Plowden guided a generation of educational researchers, it is time to ask 'what next?' Certainly there is a need to identify more closely the exact components of practice which will foster the autonomy, independence and creativity enshrined in the Report. There will no doubt be individual differences in the development of these virtues, as well as differences amongst the various sectors of the community. There is need to reconsider autonomy, not only in the context of academic work but also as it is embedded in social life in the classroom. Next we urgently need to know more about effective group work, and to disseminate this knowledge widely to teachers who are painfully aware of deficiencies in this area. Lastly psychologists and teachers might work together profitably in redefining what is meant by competence in children, including the identification of ways that education can contribute to it.

Towards the end of this issue Wilkinson and Gruber applaud the inspirational

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quality of Children and Their Primary Schools. It was misguided in some places, not sufficiently explicit in others, and even wrong occasionally, for example, in the Initial Teaching Alphabet. What matters most, however, is that the Report reaffirmed the place of schooling in the humanistic tradition. Education is about nurturing the moral, aesthetic and creative aspects in children's development, not about 'getting the country somewhere'. It is for this humane view that Britain still attracts the envy of teachers throughout the world. If Plowden has not been fully implemented, and its message has had to be clarified and modified with time, its inspiration continues to shape the goals of young teachers and their more experienced colleagues as well. Plowden's opening sentence 'at the heart of the educational process lies the child' will be with us for another twenty years.