Volume 1 (The Report)
Volume 2 (Research and Surveys)
published in 1987 on Plowden's twentieth anniversary.
AH Halsey and Kathy Sylva
The Oxford Review of Education articles were prepared by Derek Gillard and uploaded on 3 January 2005.
'Plowden' Twenty Years On
© Copyright 1987 Carfax Publishing
Page numbers are from the journal.
BRIDGET PLOWDEN was Chair of the Central Advisory Council for Education (England 1963-66), subsequently Vice-Chair of the British Broadcasting Corporation, and Chair of the Independent Broadcasting Authority. She was involved with various organisations including the National Institute for Adult Continuing Education and was Chair of the London North Area Management Board for the Manpower Services Commission. She died in September 2000.
'Plowden' Twenty Years On
ABSTRACT The following is a short non-professional account of how it seems to me that some of the main 'Plowden' recommendations or comments have worked, twenty years on.
I have written of the misunderstanding and thus misuse of the 'child-centred' concept and suggested why this happened; of the recent surveys of primary education which I feel support much of what we wrote; the great strides forward in the acceptance of parents as educational partners; the increasing emphasis on the importance of the pre-school years and in particular the work of the Pre-school Playgroups Association with its work on the education of parents, particularly mothers.
Finally I touch on the failure of the primary schools twenty years ago to deal with the numbers of small children from what are now inaccurately described as 'ethnic' backgrounds as they arrived in this country.
My direct connection with primary education is now only marginal and so I write from what I have gleaned from my continuing interest and thus my general reading. I remain deeply grateful for the experience I had of looking, with professionals, at the world of this most important stage of education. I learnt then that adults, as well as children, learn by doing - and this has taken me into the world of adult education. I am at present also involved with those who leave school at the earliest opportunity whom I meet in the Youth Training Scheme - this makes me question whether what I consider the best practice in primary schools is not also applicable in appropriate terms in our secondary schools.
Such a wide canvas was covered by 'Plowden'; I have found it impossible to write all that I wished to say. I have therefore contented myself with writing about some of the main areas with which we dealt - the so-called 'child-centred' approach which came in for such criticism, pre-school provision, parents and schools, and what we called the Educational Priority Areas, and adding to this a few general comments.
We set out to answer some questions: 'Is there any genuine conflict between education based on children as they are and education thought of primarily as a preparation for the future?', 'Has finding out proved to be better than being told?'; 'Have methods been worked out through which discovery can be stimulated and guided and children develop from it a coherent body of knowledge?'; 'Do children learn more through active cooperation than through passive obedience?' Some of us were professionals, a few of us were not. We were guided in our enquiries by HMIs who directed us to those parts of the country where what they considered the best practice was taking place. To the questions we set out to answer, the answer was in the affirmative. But it must be emphasised that as a model for others, it worked best in areas with an enlightened Chief Education Officer, supported by a similar-minded
local inspectorate and with teachers' centres where teachers could learn, and then in their own schools develop what they were already doing. Experienced head teachers were crucial in this.
It must be emphasised that we did not invent anything new. We described what we had found; we attempted to illustrate that children could be creative, could handle worthwhile books and materials, so that we might encourage teachers in a wider range of authorities to move towards meeting children's learning needs more effectively. We wrote that we 'endorsed the trend towards individual and active learning and "learning by acquaintance" and that we should like many more schools to be influenced by it.' Yet we gave a warning 'We certainly do not deny the value of learning "by description" or the need for the practice of skills and consolidation of knowledge'... 'Even as children differ, so do teachers. They must select those of our suggestions which their knowledge and skill enable them to put into practice in the circumstances of their own schools'. This was possibly not emphasised sufficiently.
The fact that there was a Report on primary education gave great encouragement to those who worked in primary schools and particularly of course to those in the authorities who were working as we described. The primary schools had tended to feel that they were the forgotten sector of education, the emphasis having previously been on the development of secondary education. It was possibly owing to the fact that no limelight had been shone upon the primary schools that some had been able to go ahead steadily and make the progress which we described.
Looking back, it seems that our Report could not have come out at a worse time. For the rapid increase in the birth rate (from an average of 767,000 per annum from 1951 to 1955 to an average of 951,000 per annum in 1961-65, thereafter decreasing slowly to 761,000 between 1966 and 70) meant a vast increase in the numbers of teachers needed. We wrote: 'Since 1960 the colleges have engaged on an expansion programme which more than doubled the number of places. It was under 30,000 in 1959 ... This year (1964) it will be 80,000'.
The staff in the colleges, mostly secondary-orientated for they were all graduates, coped as well as they could to convey to their students the best that we had described. But the difficulties of the new, young teachers, with the high turnover which there was, entering possibly overcrowded infant and junior schools - some with still a fairly formal approach - militated against an understanding of what was and what was not possible. No wonder that there were shortcomings and misinterpretations, and methods were tried which were entirely impracticable. There was sufficient fodder for the Black Paper enthusiasts to make quite a convincing case, and the affair at William Tyndale school made its special contribution to this misunderstanding. No wonder that teachers who were trying to see what could be done became depressed by all the criticism - some must have given up in despair.
I think that there is still a lack of understanding of the special characteristics of primary teaching: the closure of many colleges specialising in primary teaching increases this. Primary teaching, although it must deal with matters which are important and necessary for a child to master, still must first of all deal with the child as a person and give each child a basic confidence in learning, in seeking excellence, in courage to move into new and unknown fields, ranging from all forms of art to computers. Primary teaching is as intellectually demanding as secondary teaching, and in wider fields.
I am fortunate in still having entry to one primary school in South London and there I am regularly cheered by the industry of children working individually, by the quality
of work they produce, by their confidence and their achievements. It is reassuring to know that this school is much in demand for teaching practice. It is 'Plowden' as it should be.
One of our most down-to-earth recommendations was that there should be every ten years a survey of the state of primary education. In 1964 there was no overall picture and the survey done had to be devised in categories suggested by the imaginative late HMI John Blackie. In 1978 such a survey was done by HMIs of children learning at the ages of 7, 9 and 11 in primary schools. It made qualifications about the methods employed in schools - for instance (paragraph 22): 'It seems clear that individual assignments should not be allowed to replace all group or class work' and (paragraph 860): 'To limit teaching to a form that relies on posing questions and then leaving them (the children) to ferret out the answers seems to be a less effective way than a more controlled form of teaching. But a combination of the two approaches was consistently associated with slightly better scores in NFER tests and with the best match between tasks to be done and the children's ability to do them'. But there was a warning (paragraph 823): 'Effective application of skills, including their use in practical activities, is important. The teaching of skills in isolation, whether in language or in maths does not produce the best results'.
Progress is slow, if skills are still taught in isolation; yet from the general tenor of the HMI Report I felt encouraged. Yet, has there since then, been a slight regression? In Better Schools (1985) I find: 'In a majority of schools, over concentration on the practice of basic literacy and numeracy unrelated to the context in which they are needed means that these skills are insufficiently extended or applied' and 'Pupils are given insufficient responsibility for pursuing their own enquiries and how to tackle their work' and 'expectations of pupils are insufficiently demanding at all levels'. This is not encouraging.
Criticism of mathematics still continues - but again, I think we have to look at the teachers. For they, many of them, were taught as children by teachers who had little mathematical interest or ability. We found that a quarter of the men and two-fifths of the women had not even a pass in mathematics at '0' level GCE. Complaints about the teaching of this subject have existed for nearly half a century and until we can arouse interest in mathematics, particularly among women who still form the majority of primary teachers, it will continue.
We could not in our comments on science envisage the use of computers in primary schools, although we recognised that 'television sets, railway engines and aeroplanes' were of interest to children as well as animals and plants. The Nuffield Project was only just then starting and had not had time to see its effect. I hope though that the shortage of mathematical understanding in primary teachers is not equalled by their lack of excitement about computers. I have sometimes wondered seeing children in school playing games on computers about witches and so on, whether in enough schools teachers are sufficiently 'computerate' to take the children forward into the possibility of computer communication in a wider field. It does happen in some schools, for example in Sheffield and also in Northern Ireland.
Where has there been active progress? Certainly in the understanding of the importance of there being an active relationship between schools and parents. This was recognised in one way in the 1982 Education Bill which stated that there should be equal numbers of parents and other members of the community as teachers on governing bodies. We did not invent the importance of parents - it was already in the air and acknowledged, but we strongly emphasised how vital it was. This was not
welcome to many teachers - they feared that parents would dominate the school as they believed happened in America. I believe now that their fears have diminished. An article in Education (5 October 1984) said: 'In the years since the publication of the (Plowden) Report, attempts to involve parents have been numerous and varied. Almost all schools now have a positive home/school policy and make some effort to involve parents'. There are of course outstanding efforts, both in school and out of it. To mention but a few, SCOPE in Hampshire, Home Start, a Home Link and such schools as Belfield in Rochdale, which set itself out to be a school in which parents would feel that they had a part to play and which provided for them as well as for their children.
In schools there are numerous examples of parents coming into school and helping with a variety of activities, depending on their skills. Possibly, however, one scheme which shows the importance of parents in the education scene has been the Haringey Reading scheme, in which parents committed themselves to listening to their children reading for a short time at home every day. The encouraging result was that with a control group of children being taught by a qualified teacher, the group who were reading at home improved more than the control group and that this improvement was still showing a year later. Of interest was that those in the parental group improved even though their parents were poor readers or had little knowledge of English. This was an imaginative scheme done with the complete support of the school. Obviously there is room for further initiative in this home/school relationship.
We know that it is the quality of the interest in the home taken in the education of the child or children of the family which lays the foundation for educational success. Unless the teachers in the schools can value the parents and give them confidence in their relationship with the school progress will be slow. It still remains hard for teachers to treat parents as their equals.
Parents though are gaining confidence. They have made their voices heard over the closure of some village schools which breaks the home/school contact and harms the community. It is encouraging that the DES has made grants available to improve the quality and range of subjects in small country primary schools and that these grants are being imaginatively used by the schools and the responsible authorities.
The importance of pre-school provision for all children now seems to have been accepted - there have been sufficient models researched, both in this country and in America for Martin Woodhead to write (Oxford Review of Education Vol. 11, No. 2) that the studies he has seen 'lend some support for the idea that the most disadvantaged have most to gain', but with a qualification that this may not apply to the severely disadvantaged. It has been a long time since Margaret Macmillan's vision of what could be done.
We passed through the days in the late sixties when nursery classes could only be provided if teachers' children were to be the beneficiaries so that more teachers could be brought back into the schools. It is worth remembering that at least one large organisation suggested in its evidence to 'Plowden' that the age of entry to school should be raised. New nursery classes have been started in some authorities to cater particularly for inner city children. (But it is sad that in some schools with falling rolls the four year olds are accepted into the reception classes which often lack the special facilities which the under-fives need). Yet nursery classes do not necessarily give all that is required, for too often the parents have little part to play in them. And 'parents' most often means mothers. Looking back at the Report I found the Note of Reservation on the proposed nursery expansion by Mrs Bannister. A mother of young children herself, it was she who emphasised in her solitary note that the proposed
nursery expansion 'does little to enable mothers to participate actively in the early experiences of their children. The mothers' loneliness and boredom are also major social problems which play centres and groups might help to solve.' The 'loneliness and boredom' are now recognised and many efforts are being made to provide drop-in centres, community centres and groups for mothers and toddlers. Particularly I would like to mention the outstanding work of the late Brian Jackson in this field.
The largest number of children, however, attend groups run by the Pre-school Playgroups Association. Perhaps their recognition was not only due to their own efforts but to our recommendation that 'until enough maintained places are available, local authorities should be given power and encouraged to give financial and other assistance to nursery groups run by non-profit-making organisations'. This enabled the PPA, I believe, started only in 1961 because of the dearth of nursery provision, to grow into an organisation in its own right, being involved with playgroups, mother and toddler groups, opportunity groups for children with handicaps and other groups for under-fives. Save the Children has also developed its work with the under-fives; particularly interesting is their work with those we described as the most severely deprived in the country - the gypsies. One important aspect of PPA work is that it has developed into providing adult education for mothers, through courses at all levels, from entirely informal meetings to Open University Courses. Adults, as well as children, can learn to learn and they gain confidence in their capacity to learn if they can start on matters of interest to them. This is one step towards mitigating the 'loneliness and boredom' described by Mrs Bannister.
I see no indication that the problems of inner city schools, in what we called Educational Priority Areas, have diminished. When we were writing, as well as the difficulties of many who lived in those areas, they suffered particularly from a high turnover of teachers. In addition, in some areas such as Liverpool and Birmingham and many others, communities which had survived the bombing were being bulldozed away and rehoused in the vast blocks of flats which have proved such a disaster. There seems to have been so little understanding then of the value of a community and community support. Efforts are being made now, in particular by NACRO (the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders) to mitigate the isolation and helplessness of those who live in such places and to raise morale.
We made many recommendations to give special help in these Educational Priority Areas - money for building, special allowances for teachers and so on. Some money was provided, but the special allowance for teachers proved difficult to administer and I think faded away. Professor Halsey's Action Research projects in the early seventies gave an incentive and a great deal of valuable information. Many efforts were made by devoted teachers, but the problems still remain. The Centre for Educational Disadvantage was set up after a lengthy gestation, and had only a short life. I fear that the situation today cannot have changed very much. Does Professor Halsey's research still give stimulus and help to those working in these areas? The special concern today is about those areas where there are large concentrations of people from Afro-Caribbean and Asian families. It is obvious that people from abroad come and live near their friends and compatriots - this seems to have been the pattern in the past. But the great influx in the late sixties and seventies has produced a new situation, with schools dominated by one ethnic group, with demands from some groups for separate schools with separate codes of behaviour and religion. This presents a new dimension. I am uneasily aware that the generation of little Afro-Caribbean children who came into the schools have grown into a generation three times as likely to be unemployed as the
indigenous population. Was the gulf between home and school and different codes of behaviour too difficult to bridge? There were certainly no special books for these young people and I recall with sorrow these little children studying from books about English farms and wondering then what they were making of it. We wrote 'there will have to be constant communication between parents and schools if the aims of the schools are to be fully understood'. But did this happen? Possibly the primary schools as well as the secondary schools must bear some responsibility for the present position.
I am concerned to find an article in The Times Educational Supplement referring to a suggestion that there should be 'direct grant primary schools', 'vouchers' and 'crown places' in inner city areas. This would seem, however, to refer only to the most able children in these areas. They have their needs, but it is also the schools for all the children which matter and their quality.
What of the teachers themselves - those whose predecessors made the progress which we described? The past months of bitterness in the teaching world have produced a situation which in the days of 'Plowden' we could not have imagined. I hope that once this is past history young men and women will feel again that the primary world is a vital one and that they will find colleges staffed by specialists in primary education who will stimulate them to further learning once they are in schools. I hope that they will avoid being drawn into political matters and that they may find in their teaching guidance and encouragement from those who are educational enthusiasts.
I should like to finish by comparing some of the questions we set out to answer with some of the problems today, twenty years later. We wrote in our aims of primary education: 'one obvious purpose is to fit the children for the society into which they will grow up ... it will certainly be marked by rapid and far-reaching economic change'. There was likely to be more leisure and 'more people will be called upon to change their jobs'. 'For such a society children and the adults they will become will need above all to be adaptable and capable of adjusting to their changing environment ... they will need throughout their adult life to be capable of being taught and of learning the new skills called for by the changing economic scene'. We were more right than we knew. But it is not only primary schools who can lay the right foundation. I must add another quotation: 'Projects are also introducing changes in teaching styles. Increasingly these are geared towards providing students with the opportunity to develop initiative, motivation, problem-solving skills and other personal qualities ... Central to this approach is the transfer to students themselves of more responsibility for managing their own learning and applying their own knowledge'. This comes not from 'Plowden' but from the TVEI [Technical and Vocational Education Initiative] Review of 1985. Is this so very different from the successful application of the philosophy we found in the best primary schools?
Finally, ours was the last Report done by a Central Advisory Council. Were we so ineffective that it was right to abolish the creation of Councils such as those which produced Hadow, Crowther and Newsom? Is there not a place for knowledgeable people, not only politicians and those from the educational world, to look at intervals at what the educational world and the politicians are doing for the nation's children, who belong to all of us?