My educational journey: From Progressive to (Liberal) Traditionalist

The following blog appeared on Company of Voices, my blog as Head teacher at Trinity Lewisham on December 22nd, 2015. In the light of current debates about Michaela School in Brent it somehow seems relevant, describing the journey I have been on in my thinking about education. Interestingly the label ‘traditional’ isn’t used. In the Twittersphere the debate is frequently characterised as between progressives and traditionalists. It just shows how far our language has evolved that we now use traditional where once we would have meant liberal.


22nd December 2015

Two highlights of 2015 for me have been days facilitated by Giles Barrow: one with the Secondary phase senior staff and the other with the whole Governing Body at our residential conference.

Giles has worked with us as a ‘consultant’ for seven years. I initially found him by looking for someone trained in Transactional Analysis. He has led Inset days, twilight sessions, facilitated restorative meetings, always attended SLT residentials and facilitated two Governing Body residentials. I often describe Giles as our Gandalf. His presence is only occasional but it always changes things. He is also an important holder of the school’s narrative, he is the one who tells and holds the story to us so we can better reflect on it.

At the two days this year Giles has spoken about five models of education:

  • Radical
  • Progressive
  • Technical
  • Humanist
  • Liberal

I have found this really helpful in thinking about where we are as a school. It has given us a language to begin to describe what we think we are doing and to talk about that with each other. It also helps us to make sense of the educational landscape around us.

Giles would be the first to stress that each of these models has a positive side and a shadow side. The important thing is to recognise that. I’ll narrate the evolution of my own thoughts and ideas educationally as a way of helping to describe these models.

I trained as a teacher in the 1980s at King Alfred’s College in Winchester. I was fortunate enough to be able to spend four years on a B.Ed course. It gave plenty of time for reading and thinking about education as well as spreading practical classroom experience across that length of time. The dominant model in education was Progressive, discovery based learning. This was what we found in schools when we were in them, on our course, among our tutors and in our reading. If I described the way I ‘taught’ my first Reception class as a new teacher to the staff at Trinity Primary they would be amazed: the integrated day, real books, developmental writing.

Alongside this progressive model of learning I was also interested in Radical views of education. I read Ivan Illich, De-Schooling Society, Paolo Freire and, a hugely important book for me, Teaching As A Subversive Activity. Theologically I was influenced by Guttierrez, Boff and the liberation theologians. The most influential novelist for me was James Baldwin and my spirituality was fed by Thomas Merton.

The year I qualified as a teacher was also the year of the first National Curriculum with its endless subject folders, huge pages of learning outcomes to be ticked by box that we put together as a school. The technical model of education was entering our world, driven by the Thatcher government and its utilitarian view of the universe.

That utilitarian, Technical model of education has continued to be the dominant power in education policy in Britain since then. Like a tsunami it has washed across the progressive model which had dominated before then, not destroying it but leaving only remnants and ruins of it left behind. Michael Gove famously thought of that progressive model and its proponents as ‘the blob’ and he was right. It has been amazingly tenacious in the face of the onslaught.

My own views have changed considerably since I first began my teaching career. Mostly I have taught in areas of high levels of social deprivation. I had time out to train as a priest and served in two parishes, where I was a Governor and Chair of Governors in schools. Again areas of poverty and need. In all these contexts I have come to believe that the progressive model fails to create change. It fails to provide the resources needed to escape poverty and create social mobility. In particular, working in London in two majority black schools I have seen why what progressive schools do and what children experience in Pentecostal churches creates a clash of cultures that is too difficult for children to navigate.

This shift in my thinking is mirrored in my theological thinking too. I became very interested in Radical Orthodoxy and the work of John Milbank. In literature the writing of Harold Bloom and the idea of the Western Canon have become important to me. In educational reading E.D. Hirsch and the ‘core knowledge’ model dominate my thinking.

Interestingly I don’t think Gove is a technical educationalist. He is a classical liberal. I think this is where he is often misunderstood – as is Hirsch. Gove used all the tools and powers of the technical model including tyrannical levels of accountability (and this continues) to drive forward the educational change he wanted. I have huge admiration for him.

However, at the same time I have come to recognise the importance of the humanistic model in my own psyche and that of many colleagues. I was deeply influenced by David Halpin at the Institute of Education who supervised my dissertation for an MA I did on assessment. He was working on his book Romanticism and education: Love, Heroism and Imagination in 31x-8OsefuL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgPedagogy. In some ways a radical educationalist he describes himself as Utopian. Romantic is probably the best word for this.

I remember reading Goodbye Mr Chips as a teenager and thinking, yes, I would like to do that. This is the world of Dead Poets’ Society. It is a world that has inspired many to come into teaching. It highly motivates me. I am enormously impressed and heartened by teachers who love the children in their care and can communicate that love.

So what are we doing at Trinity?

I think we are enacting three models of education. The fact that we are trying to do this can be confusing for people and I would like to do more to help us understand that as a community and explain ourselves to others.

Technical: the first aspect of this is the huge pressures of accountability. We have to get children to pass exams. Children need exam passes as the passport to other forms of education and employment. We have to do this, it is right we do this and we are accountable for the public funds we are given to enable us to do it. However, this is not motivating for me on its own; motivation is provided by the following two models that we operate. Nor can I see this as the ‘end’ the telos of education. It is a means to something else. When we get this right we can do what has greatest meaning:

Humanistic: the desire to change lives. To create social mobility. To inspire the young people in our school. To make the world a better place. This is the world of R. F. Delderfield and his To Serve Them All My Days.This is what makes teaching a vocation. I suspect that it has been at the root of my vocation all my life, although one I have only acknowledged in the last 8 or 9 years.

Liberal: this is a new area for me and one that has developed alongside acknowledging the humanistic model. In many ways this is the model that we present most publicly at Trinity. We describe ourselves as a ‘grammar style school’, we talk about being ‘old-fashioned’, senior staff wear academic gowns, prefects and senior pupils wear academic gowns. There is a faux formality, a Harry Potterish, Hogwarts quality to some of what we do. We tried to create a cultural curriculum which we called Entering the Stream, which was deliberately intended to be an introduction to a liberal western tradition in music, art, poetry, literature and politics. It was intended to be the foundation of our character education programme but didn’t really take off. I would like us to re-visit that at some point.

Three further thoughts before I finish this too long blog:

Practice: my Deputy Head has been leading work on our classroom practice and there is much that we are moving to in our practice that echoes the threefold cord we are crafting (Humanistic, Technical and Liberal). Part of our ‘liberal’ model is in our link with Woodard schools, particularly those in the independent sector. We have moved to a position of rejecting what she calls ‘Jazz-hands teaching’, all show and no substance. We are looking for deep learning, sustained (more than rapid?) progress. All of this is in the educational air we breathe currently. I discovered a brilliant blog yesterday, The Traditional Teacher, by a teacher called Anthony Radice (Twitter: @AnthonyRadice1). I went to visit Saint Mary Magdalen Academy in Islington where they have introduced the Common Entrance exam and curriculum into Year 8 and 9. Many other blogs and websites are saying these things. The new GCSEs are all far more content driven than anything seen for many years.

51gL+XJvP5L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Interestingly I am struck, once again, by links to my theological thinking, I am reading a superb book Deep Church Rising. I did some work with Andrew Walker, one of the authors, a few years ago to formulate a PhD title for me about our work at Trinity. Sadly I don’t think it’s possible to write a PhD and do Headship, but I would like to think that what we are trying to do might be about “deep education rising”.



Recruitment: Given the power of the Technical model and the dominance of accountability I worry about the type of people who will be drawn to teaching. If you are by nature a romantic-humanist are you going to find a way into the profession? In some ways even as I write this I can answer it by thinking of the Teach First model. There is something romantic about the very concept of Teach First: getting the very brightest to offer some years of their lives to education. It may not always work like that in practice but at least there is the seed of hope.

Subversion: I’ve saved the most important until last. Over and over again teachers say they came into the profession “to make a difference”. In my darkest moments I despair that we seem to make so little difference. But then I remember the individual lives that I have seen changed by education and by teachers loving them into success. Not every life, perhaps not even many, but enough.


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