The Chaos Wrought By Progressive Education

A teacher reveals how 50 years of creeping moral relativism have left him helpless to turn his pupils into decent members of society

Matthew Hunter

I do not teach Dylan Page, but I know who he is. Everyone at our school knows who Dylan is. He comes and goes to lessons as he pleases, habitually swears at teachers, and is an accomplished playground bully. After a year of horrifying stories, there is not a single thing I could hear about Dylan’s behaviour that I would not believe. 

During the school prize-giving ceremony at the end of the year, I was surprised to hear Dylan’s name announced. He had collected one of the largest amounts of “reward stickers” in year seven, and was due to collect a prize. Many teachers, it turned out, had taken to bribing him with these stickers in a desperate attempt to appease his unruliness. As the school applauded his name, I thought of the dozens of his classmates who had had a year of learning ruined by this one pupil. Such is the moral condition of many of today’s state schools. 

There has been renewed interest in the role of morality in schooling over the past year, with much of the debate centred on the importance of “character”. In the aftermath of the dreadful energy released by the August riots in 2011, many public figures looked to schools to play a greater role in nurturing the character of their pupils. Speaking in the House of Lords after the emergency recalling of Parliament, the Archbishop of Canterbury pointed the finger at an “educational philosophy” which over the last two decades has become “less and less concerned with a building of virtue, character and citizenship — ‘civic excellence’ as we might say.” In May, the Master of Wellington College, Anthony Seldon, wrote in the Daily Telegraph: “Character, and specifically its neglect, is the number one issue of our age.”

While these commentators do diagnose a major problem with today’s schooling, I fear that they do not realise quite what a battle the fulfilment of their suggestions would entail. Massed against the idea of character formation in state schools is an entrenched ideology which sees such a “moralising” agenda as reactionary and oppressive. Having been educated at a public school, where the ethos was still shaped by the 19th-century ideal of muscular Christianity, I had little idea what I was letting myself in for when I applied to teach at a struggling state secondary school. Many state schools, in both affluent and deprived areas, are actively amoral in their notion of how to nurture children. For those with the good fortune to have attended schools where a moral underpinning remains an unremarkable part of the institutional fabric, such a school is hard to imagine. So here is a brief picture. 

Rules exist, but are broken on such a regular basis that it would probably be better not to have them at all. Pupils know that their school is chaotic and that most of their misbehaviour will go unpunished. Thus, on a routine basis, justice is not seen to be done. Personal responsibility is never developed among the pupils, as they are so rarely held to account for their actions. Only misbehaviour of an extraordinarily extreme nature (such as hitting a member of staff) is sure to be met with definite consequences. The idea that senior staff will deal with the most serious infringements does not exist. Far from being the school’s ultimate moral arbiters, senior members of staff perceive themselves as administrators, often unknown to the pupils. Similarly, events such as school assemblies are not seen as an opportunity for moral inspiration, but instead a convenient time to read out school notices and play the occasional game. Little platoons such as houses, sports teams or prefects, which should engender bonds of allegiance and notions of community, either do not exist or play little part in school life. Even the language of reward and reproach is lobotomised to remove any notion of judgment. Behaviour is not good, it is “appropriate”. Swearing is not rude, it is “unacceptable”. 

The saddest thing about working in a school like this is watching the deterioration of the 11-year-old pupils who arrive in year seven. Many, particularly those from good primary schools, are polite, well-behaved and hardworking when they start secondary school. All this will have changed by the end of the year, once they have had time to absorb the mores of their new environment. Five years down the line in year 11, many of them can’t even be relied upon to bring a pen to their GCSE examinations. For those pupils who swim against the tide and retain a work ethic and good manners, I have enormous admiration. 

Apologists for the state sector argue that schools have been innocent bystanders in these developments, vulnerable to the wider forces of social deprivation. However once you understand the philosophy that has taken hold in state education, such an argument becomes untenable. The idea that schools should be institutions designed to cultivate virtues was one of the many casualties of the 1960s turn towards “progressive” education — a movement which sought to transfer authority from the teacher to the child. The movement’s leading light, A.S. Neill, wrote: “No one is wise enough or good enough to mould the character of any child… An adult generation that has seen two great wars and seems about to launch a third should not be trusted to mould the character of a rat.”

Over the past half a century, progressive education has become normalised in our state schools. In 1993, a lecturer who went on to become a senior academic at the Institute of Education wrote, “Doing what is right cannot be a matter of doing what one is told . . . When exposed to a little more teaching of history, perhaps, this pupil will see that by such an argument the values of slave states and Nazi states would have to be endorsed.” Most of today’s teachers would not express these ideas with the zealous conviction of Neill. Instead they are expressed through an ingrained discomfort in asserting the need for children to uphold moral norms. As Melanie Phillips wrote in her 1996 book on British education All Must Have Prizes, “Morality has now become a subject to be discussed only by consenting adults in private.”

This aversion to moral education is embedded in most of Britain’s teacher-training courses. At the beginning of my Post Graduate Certificate in Education (PGCE), a lecturer was asked about behaviour in the classroom. He responded with the astounding claim, “I am a sociologist. I don’t judge misbehaviour, I understand it.” Our initial reading lists stuck to the prophets of “progressive” education, such as the Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky. Vygotsky died in 1934 and is mostly forgotten by the rest of the world, but his spectre still haunts university education departments. In his 1926 work Educational Psychology he wrote: “From the standpoint of social psychology, ethics must be looked upon as a certain form of social behaviour that was established and evolved in the interests of the ruling class, and is different for different classes.” To this day, many middle-class teachers are constrained by the guilt complex of vulgar Marxism. They are uncomfortable with compounding the oppression of the masses by expecting pupils to uphold the moral norms of “bourgeois society”. 

Even so, schools today are not completely indifferent to their responsibility for shaping the character of their pupils. Both the current government and the previous government have leant heavily on schools as means of embedding what are, in the neutered moral vocabulary of today, known as “social and emotional skills”. However, having discarded the tools of traditional education, schools suffer from a profound confusion about how this can be achieved. Still uncomfortable with the idea that children should be nurtured through the moral authority of adults, schools attempt to build pupil character in an atmosphere of moral relativism. This style of moral education has become known as “value clarification”. As writers such as Gertrude Himmelfarb and Allan Bloom have explained, the 20th-century shift from speaking of “virtues” to speaking of “values” demonstrates a wider change in Western thought from normative morality to moral relativism. Whereas virtues are collectively recognised by society and necessary for the common good, values are contingent, personal and dependent on the ethical conclusions reached by individuals. 

As so often happens in education, “value clarification” has been reduced to the glib maxim, “teach, don’t preach”. According to this doctrine, schools should not expect pupils to uphold society’s accepted virtues, but instead should impart the information and experience that allow them rationally to develop their own values. So it is thought, if pupils are sufficiently well informed about issues such as drugs, sexual relationships, or the need to work hard, they will be “empowered” to make the “right decisions” in life. This principle is mostly applied through a subject called Personal, Social and Health Education, or PSHE, an acronym that strikes fear into the heart of teachers across the country. Introduced as a compulsory subject for state schools in 2000, PSHE is the means by which New Labour believed that schools could help young people “enjoy healthy, safe, responsible and fulfilled lives”. 

I had the misfortune of having to teach PSHE in my first year, and it was hell. I have yet to find a teacher, or pupil, who does not consider it the low point of their week. I remember with horror the first     PSHE lesson I ever taught, which descended into total pandemonium. Inexperienced and idealistic, I decided that I would go for an informal vibe. “No seating plan,” I chirped as the year ten pupils        filtered into the room. Once the class was seated, I perched on the edge of my desk ready to orchestrate a freewheeling discussion about that day’s topic, “Personal Values”. The class had me for breakfast: milkshake was spilt over a desk, pupils were listening to their MP3s, and one girl was attacking another with her umbrella. It was one of the longest hours of my life. On reflection, I am now amused by the irony of attempting to persuade my class to reflect on their “Personal Values”, at a time when such “values”, or indeed a moral framework of any kind, were so clearly in short supply. 

It should be of interest to educators that the model of moral psychology upon which the “teach, don’t preach” orthodoxy depends is now roundly discredited. The moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt in his recent book The Righteous Mind writes of the “rationalist delusion” that afflicted 20th-century thinking, with its misplaced notion that we form our moral decisions and values through reasoned thought. He contradicts the work of Lawrence Kohlberg, a psychologist who should be familiar to trainee teachers. My PGCE textbook promotes his ideas, summarising them thus: “Mature moral judgment is dependent on a capacity to reason logically: it develops as children’s reasoning ability develops.”

Put into practice, these theories expose pupils to an undue level of stress and difficulty. Instead of being given clear guidance at an emotionally vulnerable stage in life, children are expected individually to create their own idea of right and wrong, through a troubling (and damaging) process of trial and error. Go to most secondary schools, and you will not find a utopia of reasoning Immanuel Kants “constructing” their individual modes of moral reasoning. Our PSHE lessons inform pupils about the health dangers of cannabis, but we turn a blind eye when pupils come into lessons visibly stoned. We teach lessons on the need to foster a positive work ethic, but passively tolerate lazy, disengaged behaviour in the classroom. And we tell pupils about the need to be well-organised, but allow them to turn up to lessons ten minutes late with no books or stationery. 

Both the amoralism of progressive education, and the misguided notion of “value clarification”, have done immense damage to the condition of British education. A new outlook is needed. A surprising starting point can be found in the work of criminologist James Q. Wilson, who was made famous by his “broken windows” theory of inner-city crime. He understood that to combat urban crime, cities had to provide an environment that cultivates virtue. In his 1993 book The Moral Sense, he applied this insight to the failing American school system. He wrote:

A moral life is perfected by practice more than by precept; children are not taught so much as habituated. In this sense the schools inevitably teach morality, whether they intend to or not, by such behaviour as they reward or punish. A school reinforces the better moral nature of a pupil to the extent it insists on the habitual performance of duties, including the duty to deal fairly with others, to discharge one’s own responsibilities, and to defer the satisfaction of immediate and base motives in favour of more distant and nobler ones.

A timelier message for the state schools of Britain would be hard to find. However, the success of this message will require a cultural counter-revolution in British education. Half a century of creeping moral relativism needs to be reversed, and state schools (like their counterparts in the independent sector) will have to offer an unambiguously moral environment for their pupils. If this sounds radical, it should not. Simply upholding the standards of common decency would be a major step forward for many state schools. It may sound painfully old-fashioned, but modern educators could do with returning to a motto first heard when the Bishop of Winchester founded New College, Oxford in the 14th century: “Manners Makyth Man”. 

Underrated: Abroad

The ravenous longing for the infinite possibilities of “otherwhere”

The king of cakes

"Yuletide revels were designed to see you through the dark days — and how dark they seem today"