Do progressive teachers fight cuts?

State schools in England are facing cuts of £3billion. The consequences are already being felt with more classes of over 30 pupils, less resources and fewer teachers. Progressive education suffers disproportionately in these circumstances. In First Do No Harm, Steve Nelson contends that progressive schools should have classes of 16 pupils at most if the teacher is to provide a truly child-centred education. It’s no coincidence that traditionalists, whose blunt methods are more suited to larger classes (see this post), currently find favour with government ministers. In our time of austerity, should the priority of progressives be on promoting our teaching methods or fighting budget cuts?

This question has a long history in progressive education. The two strands of progressivism – liberal and radical – answer the question in different ways*. For the liberals, the focus should be on the classroom; for the radicals, wider social issues are just as, if not more, important. Two periods of economic crisis similar to our own illustrate the point. In the 1970s and 1930s the progressive movement was split between liberal and radical teachers, although in both periods liberals far outnumbered radicals.

The projected cuts today are reminiscent of the mid-1970s when spending on education as a percentage of GDP fell by more than two per cent (see graph). Just as today, the Education fundingnumber of students in UK secondary schools was rising. In 1972 the leaving age was raised to 16, meaning secondary schools had to accommodate one extra year group; and in our time, according to government projections, secondary schools will contain 20 per cent more students in 2024 than they did in 2015. And, just as today, progressives came under attack from the traditionalists, although then it was from the more erudite writers of the Black Papers (see, as an example of that erudition, Bantock’s Discovery Methods). In the face of cuts and criticisms, the liberals had no response other than to continue promoting progressive teaching methods. For the radicals, the liberals’ inability to confront the new trends in education exposed two problems in their approach.

Radical teachers, such as those at William Tyndale Junior school in Islington, highlighted the conflicting values held by middle-class liberal teachers and working-class pupils and their parents:

The real motives of schooling and the controlling role of the teacher have been gently evaded. The contradictions have been papered over with triple-mounted pictures and production-line creative writing. The moribund prettiness, devoid of all motive except the transference of middle-class values to working-class children, has been embraced by many schools, especially those with a strong middle-class parental element. (Ellis et al., William Tyndale: The Teachers’ Story, p. 44)

Although the teachers at William Tyndale themselves emphasised such progressive ideals as play, experience and student choice, they claimed that liberal progressivism was “simply often traditional education in disguise, the means more indirect, the manner more showy, the ends exactly the same” (p. 42). Liberals, they asserted, questioned the means of educating, but not the ends of education. And the ends amounted to ensuring working-class children comply with a middle-class view of society.

For radical socialist teachers, this critique did not go far enough. While acknowledging the use of progressive methods in their own teaching, the socialists claimed that liberals could not comprehend the nature of the crisis in education: “Apart from its arguments about teaching methods, [liberal] progressives have made an incomplete analysis of the relationship between school and society” (p. 9). Schooling, they maintained, was designed to bolster capitalism by promoting its values and providing a workforce tailored to the needs of the economy. For socialist teachers, the crisis was not to be resolved by simply promoting progressive teaching, nor by designing schools around the experiences of working class pupils. Rather, improvements in schooling could only be achieved through changes at a societal level.

Criticisms of the liberals’ middle-class values and their separation of schooling from society echo the arguments amongst progressives at another time of economic crisis. During the Great Depression, US radicals – known as reconstructionists – railed against the “liberal-minded upper middle class” leadership of progressive education. Those liberal leaders, George Counts argued, promoted a form of individualism that defended the privileges of a few and ignored the welfare needs of the impoverished majority. The reconstructionists argued not only for a schooling that challenged social inequality, but also for progressive teachers to lead a movement that aimed to create a “just and noble and beautiful” society. 

The fact that in our time of cuts to school budgets progressives are not debating at the levels of  intensity seen in the 1970s and 1930s is one sign of the defeats suffered by progressive education in the last 30 years. Nevertheless, this blog identifies itself with the radical strand of progressive education. While continuing to promote progressive methods in classrooms, the immediate challenge is to stop the cuts. That will not be achieved by focusing on our classroom practice; rather, it will require a mobilisation of teachers, students, parents and the wider community to defend state education.


* We exclude the libertarians, a third strand, from this discussion as they are, and have always been, associated exclusively with the independent sector.