My father went to a very progressive boarding school, Dartington Hall that he would often rave about. This post is a personal post about how I feel it was not helpful for him, for any of his immediate family or for society in general.
My dad left my mother before I was born and I was state educated in Plaistow in East London until my mother died of cancer when I was eight years old. I went to live with my grandparents, my dad’s parents, even though I never met my dad in West Wales. It was a very different life to living in a red-ant, damp-infested flat in Newham where we got burgled all the time. When my mum died they even nicked the hire-purchase telly. I went to two different primary schools in West Wales and then my grandparents sent me to a secondary boarding school when I was ten, although mine was a lot more traditional than my father’s where they didn’t have to go to lessons! Dartington School, where my father went was a sister school to the notorious Summerhill and had lots of fashionable (and rich) left-wing activist parents. My father went to school with quite a few children of leading politicians and social elites.
One of the main attractions of progressive education is that it is child-centered, ethically sound and produces well-rounded individuals not shackled to the exam factory. I got to know my father after meeting him when I was 18 until his death about three years ago. What I can tell you about my father is that he was a bit of a mess and spent his life bragging and blagging in a series of jobs he had absolutely no qualifications for whatsoever. He ended up as an expert on healing backs through chatting to a doctor in a pub and going on a one day course and putting up a poster in his back room. He was a very interesting man, you could talk to him for ages about a whole load of different subjects but had absolutely no idea how to be a father. He was incredibly selfish and had absolutely no interest in other people unless he chose to help someone for his own prestige. He would never think of phoning you up and asking how you were – I only got to know him through sheer obstinacy. I was determined to know a little bit about this guy who was responsible for my existance. He thought everyone else was a fool and was uncharitable to anyone who did not 100% share his views. He thought working hard was stupid and a waste of time. He thought qualifications were pointless. He was against all forms of authority. He hated a huge amount of people, particularly Tories who were vermin. He had an inflated sense of his own importance.
What has this to do with progressive education? Well my father was a mess for many reasons, including alcohol dependency but his values were a complete mess. And your values are part of your upbringing. And much of your upbringing is about the experience you had at school. My experience of school is as a life-line. I cottoned on about at the age of 14 that I wasn’t going to have much of a life without good qualifications because I saw children who were set to inherit businesses, houses and wealth. I knew I would get none of that and the only advantage I had was that if I worked hard I would get good grades. All schools have good and bad things about them. I went to a horrific boarding school where I was very badly bullied and one where it was a lot better. But we all got pretty good qualifications. And they can’t take that away from you when you pass your exams. You can choose what you want to do within reason. The main reason I have had a pretty settled professional life, is because I got my GCSE’s and A-Levels and I have to thank my school for the hard work of getting me through this so I can compete with those who inherit the world. The teachers were pretty good but nothing special. The lessons were pretty boring and uneventful. The reason I did well was because of two hours of homework a day and two summative exams for every subject every year so when we got to the “real” exams, it wasn’t anything too unexpected. You don’t fear exams if they are regular, normal things to expect. Those people who want to get rid of exams because they think they are unethical don’t know what they are talking about. They are one of the only fair things we have in schools. You all take them, they are based on what you learned though the course and they are all marked by someone you don’t know.
My father didn’t get any qualifications. He had some success and thanks to the baby boomer generation’s advantages was able to buy a nice, cheap, detached house in a quiet village for an insanely cheap price in the 1970’s. But he ended up a very unhappy man, living in squalor after racking up many thousands of debts, losing his house, still thinking the world owed him a living and that everyone was a stupid fool.
So much for progressive education’s values. What my father needed were values of responsibility, hard work, commitment, kindness, and integrity and you don’t get these from progressive education – you get these from a traditional education. You don’t get these values from schools where you don’t have to go to lessons, where qualifications are not seen as important, where it is child-centered so you can basically do what the heck you like. Those values can turn you into a selfish, unkind, uncharitable hedonist.
We need to stop all the guff about education and focus on what really transforms people. If we truly believe in education as a way of increasing social mobility we need to think what people need to move ahead. And in the end, you get hired for jobs if you are qualified, and you keep jobs if you are a decent, hardworking person with integrity. And that’s all schools need to do. Teach kindness, the intrinsic values of working hard and help kids to get the best possible qualifications they can so they can compete with the social elite.
Resources and accommodation matter. Funding matters. But I don’t care what a school is, whether state or private, LEA controlled or Free, urban or rural, rich or poor. I don’t really care who runs it and I don’t care who gets what job, who is promoted to what place or who is bossing who. What I do care about is that every school can help children get ahead and end up living fulfilled happy lives with positive social relationships.
From what I have seen, you don’t get this with progressive education.