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A return to traditional methods: Desks are arranged in rows during Latin lessons at Toby Young's West London Free School 

Jane Mitchell was the daughter of a lorry driver. Reflecting on her education during the 1940s, she wrote: "I enjoyed the mental drill and exercise I was put through, even the memorising from our geography book of the principal rivers and promontories of the British Isles . . . It never occurred to me to question the purposes or methods of what we were made to do at school. The stuff was there to be learned, and I enjoyed mopping it up."

Jane went on to become a classics lecturer at Reading University. It is hard to imagine a child of her background taking so academic a career route today. Then again, it is hard to imagine that such a child today would receive the rigorous education she enjoyed. 

What has changed between then and now? This question has dominated my thoughts since I became a history teacher at one of Britain's abundant failing state schools. Having been educated in the private sector since the age of seven, I was not ready for the deprivation that confronted me at my new job. However, this was no material deprivation. At around £6,200 a year, average state spending per pupil is not far off the cost of a good private day school. Instead, it was a deprivation of effective teaching methods. 

One in five pupils leaves British secondary schools functionally illiterate. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that a 2010 Confederation of British Industry report found 22 per cent of employers who hired school-leavers were obliged to give them remedial training in literacy. How can such a large proportion of our pupils pass through 11 years of state schooling and still not have the basics of literacy? The answer can be found in a  pedagogical outlook which renounces rigour, embeds underachievement, and dominates the state sector. 

During my teacher training, the university reading list covered the canon of "child-centred" educators. One of the most influential is the Californian academic and self-styled "liberation psychologist" Carl Rogers. In his 1969 work Freedom to Learn he proclaimed, "Traditional teaching is an almost completely futile, wasteful, over-rated function in today's changing world," adding, "no one should ever be trying to learn something for which one sees no relevance."

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March 22nd, 2014
9:03 PM
Millions of children have been betrayed by "trendy teaching" methods that are espoused at every university to their PGCE students. At a recent staff training session, I had great delight informing those present that child-centred approaches will not feature under our curriculum to which she replied, "But that means I am to forget everything I have just learnt at university." Common sense must return to classrooms where teachers are teaching and children are learning.

May 6th, 2013
12:05 PM
Anonymous May 30th, 2012 4:05 PM It is simply heart-breaking that students arrive at Secondary Schools unable to even write their own names; they are then all put in the same 'bucket' - S.E.N., which is reaching epidemic proportions! Brilliant article! Thank God I taught my own son to read, write and spell; to divide, add-up and multiply by me, who was taught in the 'old' education system. I have made him promise he will teach his own children in the same manner. 'Progressive' teachers are quite scary monsters and as with 'Anonymous' vitriolic and 'tunnel-visioned' in their arguments.

Philip Arlington
July 25th, 2012
4:07 AM
The very idea that spending more money in itself represents an effort to improve education is part of the problem. New Labour spent more money because it increased the size of their client groups of state workers and so that they could boast about doing so for political gain. Any serious attempt to improve education would begin with an effort to improve the methods of education, then find additional financial resources if they were needed.

Laban Tall
July 14th, 2012
11:07 AM
"Through the dead hours of the morning, though the long afternoons, we chanted away at our tables. Passers-by could hear our rising voices in our bottle-up room on the bank; "Twelve-inches-one-foot. Three-feet-make-a-yard. Fourteen-pounds-make-a-stone. Eight-stone-a-hundred-weight." We absorbed these figures as primal truths declared by some ultimate power. Unhearing, unquestioning, we rocked to our chanting, hammering the gold nails home. "Twice-two-are-four. One-God-is-Love. One-Lord-is-King. One-King-is-George. One-George-is-Fifth…" So it was always; had been, would be for ever; we asked no questions; we didn’t hear what we said; yet neither did we ever forget it."

Humble Bee
June 27th, 2012
9:06 AM
I am a Maths tutor at GCSE and A-Level. I am experiencing the deterioration of basic-operation-related skills at an alarming rate even among A* grade pupils. No doubt, one factor is the excessive use of calculator, on which most teachers turn a blind eye on. There are lots of factors that are beyond the influence of teachers. Rectification of this rotten system while taking the education in isolation is like winning Formula1 on flat tyres.

June 26th, 2012
8:06 PM
Sue Caldwell's litany of excuses won't wash. There are still some schools--even in the most deprived areas--where behaviour is exemplary. Take the Durand Academy in Stockwell--over 90% of their pupils are black, and many start school virtually incapable of communicating or even using a toilet. Yet all of their pupils meet National Curriculum standards at age 11. Durand trains its own teachers (they can afford to be a bit choosy, as they also offer tied accommodation, and every single class in the school is calm and orderly. I saw this myself last year. Durand groups pupils by ability, so teachers can focus teaching at precisely the right level. No child is bored, and none is left confused. Teachers teach, and they have no qualms whatever about being in charge. It's hard to believe that simple, common-sense practices like these have been abandoned by most of our schools in favour of 'child-centred' nostrums that leave kids awash in a moral vacuum.

Sue Caldwell
June 18th, 2012
6:06 AM
There is probably quite a bit of truth in this, but, once again, there is no mention of the irrefutable fact that TV is now easily the most powerful formative influence on children in this day and age. And thus by extension the all-pervasive junk "culture" created in its image. Remember too, that children are now surrounded by and bombarded by a constant stream of flickering images. Many parents plonk their children in front of the box from day one - to be thus entranced and quite literally brain-washed by the flickering light. This process of enculturation into the consumerist "culture" of TV is described in great detail by Sharon Beder in her book This Little Kiddy Went To market. Remember how the Jesuits used to say about giving them the child for the first seven years of its life. Or of the effect of junk food and in particular energy drinks such as Red Bull on the capacity of children to even sit still and focus their attention. I regularly see primary schools boys drinking Red Bull etc on their way to school. But the situation is really much worse than that. Even from day one our culture systematically brutalizes and destroys the intrinsic bio-psychic intelligence of our children. This process has been going on for quite some time. Joseph Chilton Pearce spent a life time investigating this topic. His findings were set out in his books Magical Child and Evolution's End. See for instance Plus there is now irrefutable evidence that the brains of young children ARE being changed, and probably damaged/crippled by their staring at the screens of their TV's, computers, and mobile phones.

Thomas Arnold
June 3rd, 2012
8:06 PM
I have a son who is much interested in history, but I think it unlikely that he wants to be a historian when he grows up. The history syllabus, however, assumes that EVERYBODY wants to be a historian when he or she grows up, and therefore teaches them not history but how to be a historian. Which, frankly, is profoundly unhelpful at best and is tainted with the odour of social control at worst (for god's sake don't let them know their own history!). My son goes to an independent school.

June 3rd, 2012
2:06 PM
"Anonymous" is right. The author does not cite ECM (Every Child Matters), SEAL (Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning), personalised learning or the 21st-Century skills movement--all of which have been introduced by stealth under a succession of useless Labour education secretaries who were far more interested in their careers than our children's education. Nor does he mention how teachers are being undermined by ridiculous initiatives to 'empower' pupils--who now routinely interview prospective teachers (one was asked to perform a Michael Jackson number). In some schools, a pupils can have a teacher dragged before the head if he or she thinks a lesson is 'boring'. Michael Gove has not even begun to cleanse the Augean Stables.

June 3rd, 2012
2:06 PM
I think the Plowden Report was a year or two before 1967. I did an Advanced Diploma in Primary Education at Cambridge Institute of Education 1967-1968 (I had taught for 6 years and was a graduate Primary teacher). My tutor there was Tim White, who had been a member of the Plowden Committee. I heard a talk by A.S. Neill, who was regarded as an educational guru: he was old and rambling. In my years of primary teaching I witnessed a general deterioration in standards, as new heads were appointed who had at least to pretend to believe in the new ways. All was not bad. The ‘old’ methods could in the hands of unimaginative teachers be soul-destroying. Desks were replaced by tables, grouped in blocks, which instantly increased the amount of talking and reduced the amount of effective work being done. New teachers (there were some very good ones) often thought that a few maths ‘games’ a week would teach children all about maths. I remember that one new class complained to me, “But we did maths yesterday!” As I recall, in the early 1990s a report did recommend the return of phonics, together with the ‘whole word’ method, but this apparently never happened. Unless children can decipher new words they are reduced to memorising the whole vocabulary of the words they read. One difficulty in teaching, never sufficiently recognised, is that in a normal unstreamed class there can be a great range of ability – even in Year 4 (8-9 years) there can be up to a 5 year range of reading ages, and an almost equal range in intelligence. This makes teaching ‘challenging’, to say the least. Some children may do well with ‘child-centred’ education – those with very literate, intelligent parents, who provide them with a multitude of aesthetic and cultural activities. They have hundreds of books at home and probably are able to read long before they start school. Few have these advantages. A last true anecdote: on holiday abroad (1990s) I was with a German family with two 17 year old girls, who spoke excellent English. They told me they were specialising in science in school, but still had to do English. I asked them what they had been studying in English the previous term. “The subjunctive,” they told me. Do even A-level students in English learn this?

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