Yesterday’s article on the HMC’s endorsement of discredited ideology, ranging from multiple intelligences, to learning styles, to skills not content, to preparing for jobs that don’t yet exist, was a surprise to many. These staid old institutions that have trained so many prime ministers, business leaders and elder statesmen might, one would have thought, have been immune to the charms of trendy notions.
So why does the HMC appear to have fallen for the ideas which have done so much damage in the state system, and from which it is just starting to recover? Because there is no doubt that this is happening. I have witnessed it first hand, so I was not in the least surprised by yesterday’s article.
One key reason is the loss of independence. Independent schools have had to make many changes over recent decades, and a large number of the HMC schools have transformed almost beyond recognition. In order to survive in a competitive market, a typical boys’ boarding school will have changed into a co-educational day school, and having lost their reliable supply of sons of officers, clergymen and assorted old boys, they will be fighting to get hold of the children of the local middle class and aspiring working class. They will be in direct competition with state schools in leafy areas that seem to offer a good academic education, because they have good exam results. Not realising that these results mostly derive from dumbing down and grade inflation, parents will assume that the local comprehensive offers an almost comparable education to the local independent day school, and that independent school will have a fight on its hands. If the state school is using all kinds of impressive, scientific sounding modern methods, there is a good chance that the independent school will feel like it has to keep up with the Joneses. Over time, the independent school starts to look more and more like a slightly posher version of the leafy comprehensive.
Another key factor is the influence of initial teacher training. An increasing number of teachers in independent schools have swallowed progressive ideology whole during their PGCE, and they look terribly up to date compared to their crusty old colleagues who have been at the school for twenty or thirty years, inculcating knowledge and insisting on high standards. The headmaster, liking to be up to speed, will take an interest in the methods of these bright young things, and before long he will be inviting purveyors of futurology to staff training days, where the old guard will sit grumpily at the back doing crosswords and muttering about trendy rubbish. Their weapons, however, are useless: they’re close to retirement, and their ill-tempered intransigence only serves to increase the glamour of the smiling boys and girls fresh from university.
But most important of all, independent schools are not immune to the general cultural trend away from truth and reason which has been occurring in the West for many years, but which really took off in the twentieth century. Regardless of whether progressive methods are actually effective, they are culturally suitable in the current relativist climate. If there is no truth, then why bother learning any definite knowledge? It is easy to forget that the first progressive schools were bohemian experiments conducted by the wealthy, who considered themselves on the cutting edge of modern thought. Now the experiments have been mass produced and created generations of children who believe that their sincerely held belief must be respected, regardless of whether it has any contact with reality. If those children grow up and make a reasonable amount of money, they may well want the school whose bills they pay to dance to the anti-reason, anti-truth tune they learned in their youth. Consumer demand can fuel the growth of ineffective methods, if the consumers really believe that teaching definite knowledge is fascist indoctrination.
So independent schools have been sliding down into the abyss for some time. They have been dumbing down their curriculum, particularly by the removal of the requirement to study classics and the introduction of softer subjects with less academic content. They have been attempting to introduce the ‘latest’ ideas of skills over content. But will this have an impact on their exam results? I wouldn’t hold your breath. After so many decades of laxity, exam results are mostly dictated by a school’s intake. The cultural capital that independent school pupils have from home will continue to make up for the lack of learning in the classroom, especially considering the small amount of knowledge required to pass.
Another factor which protects independent schools from the worst effects of progressivism is the relatively civilised behaviour of their pupils. Once again, this is due to their training at home rather than anything the school has done. Gather together a group of young people whose families are caring and concerned enough to pay large sums for their education, and you will have a relatively civilised environment, however lax is the school’s discipline policy.
Looking across the education system, although there are exceptions, the pattern seems to be that the tougher the intake, the more likely is school management to adopt an explicitly and actively traditional approach to teaching and discipline. With an intake that lacks cultural or moral capital, it becomes painfully obvious that progressive methods do not work. But in leafier areas and independent schools, don’t expect reality to bite any time soon.