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Amol Rajan

Amol Rajan is Assistant Editor on the Comment desk at The Independent. He was previously a news reporter and Sports News Correspondent, and writes columns for The Liberal and The Salisbury Review.

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Getting 'progressive' education wrong

Posted by Amol Rajan
  • Tuesday, 15 September 2009 at 11:12 am
I am a very big fan of Dominic Sandbrook, who I consider a superb historian and always engaging writer.

But he gets something important wrong in his piece for the Telegraph this morning.  And I'm not just talking about his use of "famously" in his penultimate paragraph, which, as I've explained before, is verbiage.

Mr Sandbrook's concern is that British children seem increasingly lacking in historical knowledge.  His contention is that this is the fault of "both parties, who have been systematically cheating and betraying our children since the 1980s".

He chides Thatcher's lot for their "meddling from the top". Then he (and this particularly excited the sub-editors who did the page furniture) chides:
"supposedly 'progressive' interference, meanwhile, that did away with old-fashioned essay questions and replaced them with empathy exercises and multiple-choice quizzes that sacrificed any sense of intellectual depth or discipline".

Now, I realise the inverted commas around 'progressive' are his way of saying that these people are not really progressive at all. 

But by even ascribing the notion of 'progressive' credentials to the present crop of Labour politicians, he commits a fallacy which is spreading by the minute.

The fallacy asserts that people like Gordon Brown and Ed Balls believe in progressive education.

They do not.

As I hope to explain in greater detail soon, ever since the disgraceful defenestration of Lord Adonis, Labour policy on education has been ruled by the confusion of schooling with skilling.

Our present government does not believe poor people are capable of a proper academic education, so it farms them off with vocational subjects (a point Mr Sandbrook makes well).

The utilitarian, skills-oriented conception of education promoted by Gordon Brown, which sees education only as a means to an end rather than an end in itself, has heavily tainted the Left.  It is now possible for people as intelligent as Mr Sandbrook to chide 'progressive educationalists' by accusing them of downgrading crunchy subjects.

This presumes that everyone on the Left agrees with the Brown-Balls approach.  This is not the case.

As I tried to explain in starting my campaign for rote learning in state schools, there is a long and estimable tradition on the Left that believes poor people are capable of a rigorous academic education.  Richard Hoggart's masterful 'The Uses of Literacy' is a landmark text in this tradition.

Of all the terrible things that Labour have done - and they have done very many great things too - dismantling state education by rendering it hostage to vocationalism is the most appalling.

As Mr Sandbrook probably knows deep down, there is nothing 'progressive' about that.


crockogold wrote:
Tuesday, 15 September 2009 at 11:39 am (UTC)
The Labour Party view
crockogold wrote:
Tuesday, 15 September 2009 at 11:50 am (UTC)

The Labour Party view as far as we can identify it is that education is functional and vocational. They think its ok to dismantle the tried and trusted local authority system and replace it with a plethora of providers be they faith based organisations or the local millionaires. The absorption of education into a diffuse department children, schools and families is a retrograde step. The trouble is all these people have vested interests which come first and do not necessarily put "education" in its widest sense as their main motive.

An ideal education system would leave local authorities to run local educational systems in the interest of local people. Schooling would be the first stage of a lifelong process. Education should attempt to bring out the best in us all. It should not be subjected to religious or economic prejudices. It is fair to say that the Labour Party has lost the plot and although we face a rather unpleasant Conservative party in power soon there is little point in pursuing the Balls agenda any longer.


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