The English Primary School

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  • This article was downloaded by: [University of Chicago Library]On: 10 November 2014, At: 19:11Publisher: RoutledgeInforma Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954 Registered office: Mortimer House,37-41 Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH, UK

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    The English Primary SchoolHarold LoukesPublished online: 30 Nov 2011.

    To cite this article: Harold Loukes (1966) The English Primary School, Comparative Education, 3:1, 149-153, DOI:10.1080/0305006670030302a

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  • VOLUME 3 NUMBER 3 JUNE 1967 149

    The English Primary School *

    HAROLD LOUKES

    THE ENGLISH are beginning to recover from their pathological dread of educationaltyrannies that beset them during the nineteenth century, but are not sufficiently healthyto be able to trust the central government to make many positive decisions. Quietly, thecentre is taking over; but it is still necessary to make progress by consent, persuasion andpressure rather than by decision and command. It is still necessary, therefore, to preparefor change by producing a report; and the Central Advisory Council for Education is, inessence, a body of report-makers.

    The Plowden Report was called for because it began to look as if the attention directedto secondary school re-organization was leading to a neglect of primary schools; partlybecause the achievement of secondary school re-organization was suddenly depriving theprimary schools of one of their chief functions, namely to select children for secondaryschools; and partly because it was thirty-five years and a world war ago since primaryschools were last reported on. The Advisory Council was therefore newly constituted,with Lady Plowden as Chairman, and a group of teachers, teacher-trainers, inspectors,local officials and councillors, an economist, a sociologist, a psychologist and a philosopher,and asked to consider 'the whole subject of primary education and the transition tosecondary education'. And with this ample brief, the committee spreads itself in an amplereport, weighing nearly a kilo, that covers virtually every area of decision-making in thefield.

    The function of a report like this is not, primarily, to do any new thinking so much as tolend its support to the best thinking already going on, and to come to some sort of decisionabout the administrative choices that are called for. It is therefore no criticism of theReport to say that it gives no new light on the meaning of primary education: it simplyturns the light in directions worth looking at. It sets out to describe what it thinks a goodschool is, in hopes of awakening teachers to what they ought to be doing. A 'good' school,it is argued, can happen anywhere, in new buildings or old; it will be marked by a wealthof activity with sand, water, paint, clay, or plants, worms, trees and rabbits; by drama andmusic, and writing about music; chess, books, pottery, silver-beating; and an amplitudeof conversation and enquiry and friendliness and laughter. This 'descriptive persuasion'is reinforced by a brave attempt at categorizing schools by 'inspectors' assessments',ranging from 'a school of outstanding quality' to 'a bad school where children suffer fromlaziness, indifference, gross incompetence or unkindness on the part of the staff'. Thefirst group contained i per cent, the last, it is a relief to learn, o.i per cent. The validity of

    *Children and their Primary Schools, A Report of the Central Advisory Council for Education(England), Vol. 1, HMSO, 1. 5s. net, 556 pp.

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  • 150 COMPARATIVE EDUCATION

    this game it is difficult to decide: there are no quantitative marks by which the results canbe themselves assessed; and it may well be that the whole exercise amounts to no morethan a device for encouraging teachers in self-examination.

    This somewhat vague encouragement to virtue is continued in the section dealing withcurriculum and organization. A section entitled 'The Aims of Primary Education' bearsthe imprint of the philosopher to the extent that it admits that talk about 'aims' usuallyboils down to non-sense, though it cannot entirely free itself of the notion of 'a philosophy'of education, vaguely democratic, egalitarian and pragmatic.

    The most valuable part of this general discussion comes in an examination of thecurriculum, where a liberal, appealing description of adventurous learning is related notonly to the post-Froebel tradition from which the best practice has grown, but to a wealthof educational research, English, European and American. The committee here lean theirweight on the side of active learning, discovery, the free timetable, the project and the'centre of interest', the use of the environment. They utter cautions against sloppinessand lack of standards; they urge the necessity of intellectual rigour in the pursuit of thereal environment at least as demanding as the rigour of an academic discipline. Theyurge learning on a wide front, with the subject barriers down; and learning in depth wheninterest has been aroused.

    In all this it is true, there is nothing that has not been said before; and if it were so, theReport would be the less of a Report. To identify the best practice and to describe itpersuasively is all that we can legitimately ask of a document of this kind. Yet in one respectthere breaks in novelty, not in the sense of'new and original', but 'new in a public report';for the curious situation that prevails in Britain over religious education is here, for thefirst time, faced honestly and faithfully. Britain is now, in practice, a largely secularcountry; yet the Education Act of 1944 prescribed compulsory worship and religiousinstruction for all children in all schools. Hitherto, educational reports have contentedthemselves with a recognition that religious education was proving somewhat difficult,and have then hastily closed the issue by saying that nevertheless it was important, andteachers must carry on. This Report opens the dialogue, now maintained in unofficialcircles with increasing intensity, and leaves it open. A minority report maintains thatreligious concepts are beyond the comprehension of primary school children, and asks forthe Act to be repealed, leaving the way open for teachers to use biblical and other religiousmaterial if they wish, but no longer demanding it. The main report argues, with greatcharity but a certain lack of realism, that children should be 'taught' a 'faith' before theyare old enough to question it; and contents itself with pleading for more enlightenedteachers 'sensitive to the feelings of children of parents who are non-christian, agnosticor humanist as well as to those of Christian parentage'. As a plan of action, therefore, theReport fails to match the need of the day; but as a basis for thought and argument therealism and understanding shown on both sides of the argument are of enormous value,and represent a new departure for the educational debate.

    When we turn from the somewhat cloudy area of the curriculum and ethos of theschool to the problems of organization, buildings and the provision of teachers, we findourselves in a totally different climate. There emerges in these sections a note of deter-mination, a clear conception of what is wanted, and a clarity and urgency in arguing thecase, that makes the document, if not positively original, at least powerful and concen-trated. The story of English education during the past hundred years has been a story of

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  • VOLUME 3 NUMBER 3 JUNE 1967 151

    the slow realization of 'equality': from the resolve to educate the children of the poor,despite the fact that they did not deserve it, through the provision of a cheap education forthese same poor to the realization that the 'poor' were deprived in other ways than materialones, and so on to the resolve that educational provision should match their need. In thelast twenty years attention has been focused on the problem of the secondary school,where 'the poor' still survived and were identifiable in schools clearly (though not inten-tionally) designed for them. Now it has been resolved that secondary schools shall becommon schools; and while the problems they will present are still to be worked out,the Plowden Committee has sounded a challenge to wipe out the last remnants of educa-tional poverty in the primary school. Here, the argument runs, are schools that we knowwhat to do with, if only we have the resolve. Let us do it. The argument is thereforeadvanced that what is needed here is not 'equality' but 'positive discrimination' in favourof deprived areas. The note of resolve and determination in this argument is significantof a profound change in the Englishman's understanding of equality that has becomenoticeable only in the post war years. Until the war, it was generally assumed that 'equality'was attained by simply setting children free of the financial and environmental handicapsof their home background. Let all schools be free and equal; it was said, and all will bewell. In fact, of course, the schools were made neither free nor equal; but as time haspassed the very assumption is being challenged. 'Equality of opportunity' is not enoughif what that means is that children should be equally free to compete for educationalprovision, because their home and neighbourhood determine an unbreakable inequalitybefore ever they reach school.

    For a time, the English were able to accept this inequality as in some way providential,part of the divine ordering of things to maintain the political hierarchy. They did not, in1944, u s e t n i s kind of language, but when they fatalistically assumed that 'intelligence'was governed by 'normal distribution', and was largely 'innate' and measurable at abouteleven, they were saying much the same sort of thing, in twentieth century jargon, as theright wing used to say in 1800 about the divine intentions for the English social system.But studies of deprivation in homes and neighbourhoods, and studies of what deprivationmeans, such as Bernstein's work on language, have brought a new, revolutionary hopethat after all children may not be doomed to this kind of inequality. The Plowden Report,like the Newsom Report, has turned anxious, even angry attention on schools in deprivedareas: pointing out that deprived children are not merely unfortunate in their homes andstreets, but in the very schools themselves. There is a bitter vicious circle in operation:able children leave deprived areas to work in the new towns; the new towns build newschools to serve their children of their immigrants; the old schools are neglected, andgrow worse; teachers are reluctant to work in them; and the schools grow still worse,harder to teach in, so that even the teachers they have are driven to work elsewhere as amatter of survival.

    The Report proposes an attack on this problem in ways as specific as a military operation.Identify the deprived areas, it says, and formally designate them as demanding particularattention. Start at once with the worst two percent, and work up over five years to ten per-cent. Pay additional salaries to teachers who work there. Provide teachers' aides at aratio of one to two classes. Rebuild urgently, and release money readily for minor works.Support these schools with extra books and equipment. Woo the teachers, support themwith in-service training, and with social workers based on the schools. And back the

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  • 152 COMPARATIVE EDUCATION

    whole venture with long-term planning for social diversification in the neighbourhood.The compassion and clarity of all this is so urgent that it is easy to overlook the sheer

    novelty of this kind of argument. The English have assumed for so long that educationwas for the educable, that 'good' children deserved 'the best', and that 'bad' childrenneeded nothing much beyond socialization and the minimum skills of an industrial order,that the implications of this 'positive discrimination' are startling. For money and buildingsand teachers are all in short supply: so 'positive discrimination' in favour of deprivedareas is no more or less than discrimination against privileged areas, and all those 'nice'children. This is all splendid and heartening; and if action is pursued with the same dedi-cation as the preaching, then the English revolution has a chance after all.

    The problem of equality intrudes, curiously, on the age of entry. Children have beenadmitted throughout the year, when they became five; but have been promoted in year-groups at the end of the summer. Children born in the summer have therefore beenpromoted soon after their arrival; and it has become clear that they have suffered through-out their school career. They have found their way at an early age into the lower streams ofthe system, and there they have remained.

    The committee propose to deal with this problem by a large increase in nursery-schoolprovision, so that all children whose parents want it for them can have it; and then tomark out the infant school proper as a three-year school, beginning in the September after...

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