When Teachers Stopped Teaching

‘Those who challenge the status quo often earn the hatred of those in power.’

Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind


Why are 7 million adults across generations illiterate in Britain? Why do we spend £89 billion on education and still have 21% innumeracy among school leavers? Why were 44 teachers hospitalised by pupils in 2010? Why do teacher training courses and textbooks contain so many references to Vygotsky, born in 1890s Russia under the reign of the Tsar? Why have 21% of UK pupils been diagnosed as SEN – five times the EU average? Why are there some regions where just 20% of poor pupils leave school with 5 GCSE’s, when in some regions, it is 80%?

Robert Peal’s book on the history of education chronicles how these puzzles came about.

History can enlighten us to the present by explaining the past. This book does exactly that: it exposes the predicaments of our schools by unearthing the origins and evolution of ideas in the education system.



The historical context

Andrew Old writes the foreword, and says: ‘Few publications can claim to be subversive, but that is a fitting description for what Robert Peal has written here. His arguments against the influence that progressive education has on our education system will challenge many of those in a position of authority.

‘Robert Peal is now making a unique and essential contribution to the education debate by providing the political and historical context of the arguments.

‘This is essential reading: for some, a shock; for others, a call for subversion.’


The crux of the book is this: the neglect of strict discipline and knowledge-led instruction has resulted in persistent underachievement in English schools.


Disruption and the neglect of discipline

In 1967, Plowden Report cast doubt on the idea that strict discipline and sanctions worked. According to a survey by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate, 68% of schools were rated average, good or very good on the desired feature of ‘permissive discipline’.

By 1977, £15 million of damage a year was being done to British schools. Teacher turnover was 33% a year in London primary schools. In an emblematic example, William Tyndale school was set up with no effort to enforce discipline – derided as ‘social control’ – at all. Bullying, abuse of staff and even stone-throwing was commonplace. One pupil climbed onto the roof and hurled glass milk bottles at infant pupils below. The head’s response was to get milk delivered in cartons instead. Parents removed children, and the roll fell from 230 in 1973 to 63 when it closed in 1975.

Between 1972 and 1980, a survey on discipline was conducted that showed the gap between academic educationists and the public. 99% of parents, 91% of pupils but only 34% of academic educationists agreed with sanctions to back up rules. 99% of parents, 90% of pupils but only 24% of academic educationists thought discipline not adequately enforced in schools. Academics training teachers taught them discipline didn’t matter.

By 1985, 80% of teachers said violence and disruption were commonplace. In 1987, 94% of teachers said indiscipline was on the increase. In 1988, 68% of pupils said bullying was a problem.

In 2010, a supply teacher wrote an account of inner-city schools. He’d witnessed a pupil stabbed in Nottingham, vodka in lesson in Birmingham, weed in lessons in Sheffield, and teachers told to ‘fuck off’ by pupils everywhere. A short-term contract teacher wrote in 2001 that she had dog mess put in her bag, and saw teacher get a black eye from a kid.

By 2011, OFSTED rated behaviour as good or outstanding in 70% of secondary schools. But only 20% of teachers thought behaviour in the schools was good. Teachers stopped teaching and went on strike in Lancashire against persistent indiscipline: pupils were challenging teachers to fights. In June, OFSTED rated behaviour in the school as good.

Surveys told a different story. In 2010, 80% of teachers said their teaching was harmed by pupils’ poor behavior, and 92% said behaviour had worsened over their career. In 2011, 40% reported being bullied by pupils. In 2010, 44 teachers were hospitalized due to pupil attacks. A 2011 survey revealed that over half of teachers were thinking of quitting, with misbehaviour one of the two most common reasons cited.

Permissive discipline had resulted in prevalent, persistent disruption and low teacher retention.


Underachievement and the neglect of knowledge-led instruction

In 1971, the year Michael Young published ‘Knowledge and Social Control’, Ivan Illich published ‘Deschooling Society’. They became staples of teacher training reading lists. By 1974, a headteacher said teaching recruits ‘come out of college with Knowledge and Control in the bloodstream’.

By 1991, 62% in Germany, 66% in France, but just 27% in England were gaining 3 good GCSEs (or international equivalent) in Maths, Science and the national language.

In 1989, HMI inspected KEGS Stratford, and criticised them for their traditional teaching methods. In 1992, OFSTED was set up to raise standards and prevent prejudice from harming schools.

But by 2000, OFSTED were actively promoting these orthodoxies. In 2001, Chief Inspector Chris Woodhead resigned, saying ‘my single biggest doubt about Ofsted stems from the fact that some inspectors are unwilling or unable to jettison their progressive educational views.’ From 2006 to 2014, teacher blogger Andrew Smith has chronicled how ‘OFSTED remains the steadfast enforcer of the orthodoxies of progressive education’. From 2010 to 2013, of 228 lessons, child-centred teaching methods were praised, while teacher-led knowledge-based lessons were criticised. OFSTED inspection judgements are based not on the academic success of a school, but on progressive prejudices held by the inspectors.

Knowledge-led teaching was derided by the educational establishment in the first decade of the 21st century. In 2006, teaching union ATL stated: ‘a 21st century cannot have the transfer of knowledge at its core’. In 2007, Mick Waters, head of QCA and national curriculum reform, said that subject content was ‘not vital.’ Academic Guy Claxton said ‘knowledge is changing so fast that we cannot give young people what they need to know, because we do not know what that will be.’ In 2009, in Knowsley, Merseyside, £157 million was spent on 7 schools who would not teach knowledge, as children ‘can now sit on Google’. Only 41% of the pupils in one of them secured 5 good GCSEs.

Claims that progressive education would produce ‘best educated generation in our nation’s history’ had proved unfounded. By 2010, without BTECH equivalencies, just 56% achieved 5Cs or better. Almost half the country was not getting 5 good GCSEs.

The neglect of knowledge-led instruction had resulted in national underachievement.


A corrective shift

The book concludes: ‘The underlying philosophy of our schools needs to change. A corrective shift towards traditionalist modes of education is needed. It is high time we freed our schools from this burden of bad ideas.’

Optimism, though, is the striking end-note of the book. ‘Teachers with fresh ideas now have the freedom to design alternatives to the status quo.

For the educational establishment, this book will be a shock, and the reaction will be defensive. For reform-minded teachers, this book is a call to action, and the response will be sanguine: discipline and knowledge can improve academic achievement.

Robert Peal’s book exposes the history of fundamentally flawed ideas – that strict discipline and rich knowledge are oppressive – and their enduring legacy of educational underachievement.

About Joe Kirby

School leader, education writer, Director of Education and co-founder, Athena Learning Trust, Deputy head and co-founder, Michaela Community School, English teacher
This entry was posted in Education. Bookmark the permalink.

28 Responses to When Teachers Stopped Teaching

  1. Joe Kirby says:

    Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

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  3. Oh dear. Another complex issue put in black and white terms again. Why do educators keep falling into the false dichotomy trap? We shouldn’t be arguing ‘conservative’ versus ‘progressive’ — we should be asking, ‘What aspects of both have we found to be successful/important?’ Sadly, Peal’s book, and you Joe Kirby, are not helping the debate.

  4. Martin Owen says:

    If every teacher was able to read Knowledge and Control, we would have an outstanding teaching workforce. It is NOT an approachable book. It requires a fair amount of pre-reading of other difficult texts. It seems the author (and the quoted headteacher) may not have read the book – it is a book about the sociology of epistemology.

  5. Rory says:

    This article is so discouraging it’s hard to know where to begin – the argument is no longer between “progressive” and “knowledge led.” The simple fact is, teachers have not been taught how to teach either way. Where in the world would they have gone to learn? They can’t go to any school of education I’m aware of (except maybe the University of Oregon).

    Take a look at any so-called Knowledge-led classroom and you’ll see the same old stuff – teachers with their backs to the class while they scribble nonsensically on the blackboard, hands waving in the air, classes not starting on time, no chorusing, no copying, questions before answers, no solution and answer keys, discussions led by the same 33% of the class day-in and day-out. There is only one set of skills, tools and solutions that I’m aware of. Taught at the only educational website that maters (get ready) and that’s Brainsarefun. Neither progressive or traditional, simply teaching kids how to succeed with reading, math and study skills.

    Know another? Let me know of one with real solutions and an overarching framework of support. I’d love to hear about it. I’m exhausted by the blather – and it is “blather.”

  6. Alison says:

    The risk is a swing back to knowledge-based/teacher-led instruction. We need to ensure children do learn the knowledge and skills needed and are then able to use them in relevant contexts to the 21st century, which help them develop the skills essential for their future, including critical thinking, teamwork, problem solving and debating.

  7. dtjprime says:

    Reblogged this on dtjprime and commented:
    Clearly a book to be read for all interested in education.

    • Rory says:

      I haven’t read this book – but I honestly don’t see what difference it would make. Many of us already know that what goes on in about 99.2% of all classrooms stinks. what concrete suggestions does it make about flooding kids with reading, math and study-skill success – I’m only going to guess, “none.”

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  9. poppygitsham says:

    I constantly wonder why i’m quoting theories that just do not have any use when i’m teaching. Teachers work so hard and unfortunately it seems that at the moment we are the ones who have to do exactly what we’re told. I fear that my passion for teaching and want to put new ideas in place will be stripped away all too quick.

    • Rory says:

      Of course your passion will be stripped away all to quickly. All that false instruction… Give yourself a break and learn how to flood kids with reading, math and study-skill success, no matter what subject you may be teaching, or grade, or age – there’s only one site that matters at all: Brainsarefun.com. I have found everything else to be far to long-winded and filled with cliches and platitudes. If it takes longer than 5-minuts to flood a kid with success you’re using the wrong program (which, of course, is almost a given if you have to rely on curriculum committees and textbook publishers).

  10. Alexis Shea says:

    I’ve not read the book yet but the statistic that only 41% of pupils in a school where knowledge wasn’t taught secured five good GCSEs seemed to highlight the over-riding issue: what do we want the purpose of our education system to be?

    GCSEs test knowledge (memory recall and memory of exam technique) so of course the pupils at this school who were not taught knowledge will most probably not achieve five good GCSEs; did they ever set out too? I am hopeful that their aim for educating children was to grow dispositions required for life-long learning in an uncertain future: collaboration, strategic awareness, leadership (skills the CBI repeatedly say are lacking in graduates and young employees)! If so, let’s discuss whether the school was successful at what it set out to do, not judge a school using an irrelevant measurement and assume that 5 GCSEs and being ‘academic’ should be the yardstick by which we measure all education (especially if we remain unclear what we want the point of education in the UK to be).

    • So, on that 41% stat. Be careful. Knowsley has historically been one of the worst performing areas in England (so 41% actually isn’t bad in context), and it’s also an area with a complex history of multiple deprivations, that began with it being an ‘overspill’ town for people who lived in slums that were closed post-Blitz. The development was never properly executed (and became a 60s mess of high-rises) which sank into decline almost immediately. This was then further worsened by mass unemployment throughout the 1980s and 90s in Liverpool as local industries declined. Its major employers now are call centres.

      So, sure it could be coincidental that the schools in this area have low scores, it could be that it’s about “not teaching knowledge”, but it’s likely related to many other factors. This doesn’t excuse the schools, they need to do better. But if you come with me to Huyton and stand in the high street and see the people who didn’t pass their GCSEs I wonder if your first thought would be: “You know what would’ve made the biggest difference to these people? Being taught how to remember more facts”.

      This doesn’t undermine the idea that children should be taught facts, and that they ought to be helped to remember, or even that there ought to be consistently applied behaviour sanctions. But the idea that Knowsley’s big problem is progressivism is to massively over-simplify the issue. Remember, history can be told many ways.

      • Joe – Laura,

        My mother, Rita, is a social worker in Knowsley. I know the area deep in the bone and a polemic that correlates the 41% to a progressive ideology alone doesn’t know those schools, or those people, well enough. Does Robert Peal wish for better for those people? I have no doubt he does, but this is a broader complex picture of social and financial capital that sits alongside the apparent poverty of intellectual capital described in the thrust of the argument.

        I was brought up in Croxteth/Norris Green and latterly Vauxhall in Liverpool – the proverbial stone throw away from Knowsley – and equally as deprived. I have first hand knowledge of being in the 41%. And yet my schooling, in the 1990s, was traditional textbook fare. I don’t need to trade on hoary, singular hard luck stories, but I know there were many people in my school who came from families where no-one had worked in generations and where illiteracy was the norm. My mother could share countless stories of awful deprivation that tell the story of too many of the 59% in Knowsley. I knew too many friends who were drowning in the chaos of their family lives when I was at school, although it felt all too ‘normal’ to me then. It is the history that Laura describes. It is a history seldom told or heard.

        Should we question our schools and demand they do the best for those students who are most deprived. Without doubt. Only the battleground of inequality is much broader and should hear that argument too.

        I have to say I have not read Robert’s book and I will not blog to any significant extent on the matter until I do. I just wanted to comment on Knowsley, given my intimate knowledge of the place.


  11. Thanks for this review Joe. There’s something intoxicating about a self-reinforcing polemic – but it’s all too easy to get fired up with the righteous outrage. I wonder whether this ultimately helps us to shape the future? I’ve read Toby Young’s comical Civitas pamphlet – it’s such a cartoonish caricature of our system, I actually laughed out loud all the way through. Is this book more serious? If so, I might have a read.

    The basic problem I have is this:
    The narrative of ‘worse’. There is absolutely no evidence that at any time in the past our education system delivered better overall outcomes than it does now. We many not be better but we’re not worse. Behaviour had always being ‘getting worse’ – it’s the staffroom narrative of centuries of education. It’s how we view the persistence of the fundamental challenge of moulding adolescents into responsible adults. A key factor in the past was the presence of corporal punishment. All these anecdotes of mayhem don’t add up to a case of cause an effect. If you look at the post-war culture in Britain and then the culture now – where we have a fairly impressive level of social cohesion without corporal punishment and some wonderfully liberal changes in social attitudes around homophobia, race and gender (albeit with further to go), there’s a decent chance that progressive ideals have done a good job in making Britain a great country to live in. At least there’s an argument to be had. And that doesn’t mean that good discipline isn’t important or that it could be much better.

    I’ve been in schools since 1970 – teaching since 1987 – and I doubt that core practice has fundamentally changed in all that time. Regardless of what is taught or stated formally in publications and teacher training manuals, I’d argue that day to day school business is broadly the same as ever. At most, what changes is a small change in emphasis. Most lessons that have been taught in the last 30 years are probably closer to your typical traditional knowledge-led lesson than anything remotely progressive. I’d suggest that progressive education has operated more at the level of ethos than pedagogy. We’ve always had exams, a curriculum, the need to impart knowledge – and so on. The grade inflation issue is part of that process – we’ve been driven this way all along. I just don’t buy that whole argument – that progressive education has turned us into jelly-headed anti-knowledge merchants. At most, that’s a fringe issue that may affect some schools.

    So, I’d agree that a knowledge-rich highly disciplined approach to education is the way to go – and that there have been examples of pottiness of the years – but that’s not because progressive education has ruined what was once a great system. It may well have run it’s course, having created the conditions we enjoy now (where ‘every child matters’ is something we actually believe) so that we’re in a position to take things to the next level.

    • Rory says:

      I like these comments a lot and believe them to be right on.

      Hmmmm? Wonder what that “next level” would look like to you? Might it involve flooding kids with reading, math and study skills success? Might it involve study-skills like 5-5-5s?

      Just asking. Personally, I don’t believe the day will come when we’ll do any more than whine and apply for grant money so we can sit around and talk to one another in useless training sessions. And I do mean “useless” because virtually nothing is taught o mastery.

      Examples of some classrooms that work can be found in our military and para-military organizations where students are taught how to save lives and destroy bridges. Works there,

    • “Most lessons that have been taught in the last 30 years are probably closer to your typical traditional knowledge-led lesson” Please can you send me some of your standard lesson outlines so that I can see how you do it. Cheers

      • Rory says:

        Here is the world’s best “lesson outline.” This is how I do it and kids gain 2.1 years reading skill in 4 weeks; 1 year math gain in 2 weeks: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1YiF0Bajw2gawCVLjeLE0HPC7k350x4y1LLlSlvILbFI

      • You wrote: “Here is the world’s best “lesson outline.” This is how I do it and kids gain 2.1 years reading skill in 4 weeks; 1 year math gain in 2 weeks”. If that is so, then clearly all your students can already read and write. I’ve read the 5-5-5 procedure you use and it REQUIRES kids to be able to write in the first 5 minutes. What would you do in a classroom where half the kids couldn’t write? Rory, I believe you have great intentions, and I’m sure you are dedicated, but you overstate the case and have a very simplistic view of “progressive” and “traditional” pedagogies. It doesn’t help your readers to think about the complex issues involved. It truly is ridiculous to say, “The ONLY real solutions are on the only site that matters, Brainsarefun.com.” You just lose people. (But I wish you well.)

    • ChrisN says:

      Headguru, you say: “Most lessons that have been taught in the last 30 years are probably closer to your typical traditional knowledge-led lesson than anything remotely progressive”

      I suspect that is probably true of secondary schools. But is it true of primaries? It was in primary schools, for instance, that the vogue for banning whole class teaching, banning memorising of times tables, etc in the 80s and 90s took place, and had to be reversed with Labour’s Numeracy Stragegy, which brought immediate improvements. Similarly with reading instruction: the implementation of trendy but disastrously un-evidenced ideas about teaching via “real books” and through “whole language” methods took place in primaries. Similarly with insisting that the focus in writing be heavily on writing stories, while neglecting non-fiction; total avoidance of teaching grammar, and an insistence on not correcting spelling because it might harm creativity; huge amounts of group work and discovery learning, but little teaching of basic knowledge.

      These are all key “progressive” ideas, and it seems likely that they are the reason that so many disadvantaged children reached – and still reach – secondary school without the basic skills they need to access the curriculum.

      • I’m not really in a position to comment on primary practice as a whole. Regardless of the traditional-progressive discussion, I think primary teaching has to evaluated in the context of the necessity for generalist teaching across the curriculum and for mixed ability teaching. There is also the need to account for the gradual progression from play-based learning in the early years to more formal learning at KS2 – that makes it all the more problematic when we’re making generalisations about primary practice as a whole. Finally, it’s important not to assume that any number of whacky schemes that one could report add up to a general picture of the system. I encountered SMILE maths in the early 90s, for example (an individualised maths scheme); I thought it was a ridiculous way to (not) teach maths – but that doesn’t mean that maths teaching in general across the country was like that; in fact I don’t think it was remotely. Teachers have been fending off faddish teaching for decades; as I suggest above, I reckon progressive ideals are more evident in ethos than pedagogy.

      • Rory says:

        “Disadvantaged children?” You bet – but teaching, even at the fanciest schools, stinks. Just sit in on a class at Harvard (which you can do over the Internet) and see what you get. Same old bunkoramama you see in pre-school. Want solutions? The only real solutions are on the only site that matters, Brainsarefun.com.

  12. Pedro says:

    Reblogged this on From experience to meaning… and commented:
    I won’t react defensive, nor will I agree by definition, but I sure want to read the book thanks to this review.

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