Primary Education-- at a Hinge of History?

By Colin Richards | Go to book overview

4

The 'Primary School Revolution' Demythologized-An Appraisal of the HMI Primary Survey

More than other sectors of the education system, primary education seems subject to myth-making. Myths can be positive and supportive; they may be negative and condemnatory. A myth associated with the Plowden Report and very much in currency in the early 1970s was of an 'educational revolution' along child-centred lines. It still lingers on 25 years later-reasserted by right-wing critics whose knowledge of the state education system is at best second- or even third-hand. That 'revolution', redolent of the expansionist, optimistic 1960s, was believed by the writers of the Plowden Report to represent 'a quickening trend' which promised to transform primary education. It never happened, though it did provide inspiration for some teachers and frustration and disbelief for others (myself included) who could not understand how the tenets of what passed for child-centred education could be applied to their classes without resulting in near-anarchy and chaos. But a fascinating puzzle remains: how, where and why did the myth originate and who perpetuated it and benefited from its dissemination?

As this chapter, written in 1979, argues, the debunking of the myth was accomplished primarily by the national survey of English primary education carried out by HMI and published in 1978 under the title Primary Education in England: A Survey by HM Inspectors of Schools. This provided firm evidence of curricular and pedagogic continuities between pre- and post-Plowden practice in the vast majority of schools. It showed that with the advent of non-streaming and the spread of mixed-ability classes organizational changes had occurred. There was more individual and group teaching than previously and there were changes in the ways in which classes were organized and in the layout of classrooms, but the curriculum was 'scarcely more than a revamped elementary school curriculum with the same major utilitarian emphases' (an equally apt description of the current post-1997 ITEMS-IT, English, mathematics and science-curriculum). The primary survey was important as a rigorous professional appraisal of post-Plowden primary education and as an agenda-setting publication which provided the impetus for a decade of HMI-led initiatives in primary education.

When the history of English primary education in the twentieth century comes to be written, three dates are likely to be seen as particularly significant: 1931, when the notion of the 'primary school' received official recognition in the Hadow Report;

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