The Ideas Behind Forced Academisation


Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1788)

If you want to understand the thinking behind the government’s education reforms, you need to read E D Hirsch’s The Schools We Need: And Why We Don’t Have Them (1996). Hirsch had been thrust into the education debates following the success of his Cultural Literacy (1987). He was astonished to find so many who vehemently opposed making a shared body of knowledge the centre of public education.

As a professor of Romantic literature, Hirsch was extremely well placed to identify the ideological sources of the opposition to clear, explicit teaching of well defined knowledge, in works such as Rousseau’s Emile. However, the existence of the idea that it is tyrannical to impose adult knowledge upon the young is not sufficient for explaining how such notions became so widespread, to the point where young people could spend many years under the care of expensive professionals, and emerge lacking even the most basic knowledge of the history, geography and literature of their own country.

Hirsch realised that it was necessary to look in more detail at the practical ways in which progressive theories gained dominance. This happened through the construction of a professional milieu which excluded laypeople from educational decision making. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, parental influence was too strong for a widespread progressive revolution to take place. Most parents wanted their children to receive a traditional education, like the one they had received, and were uninterested in the obscure theories being promulgated by self-appointed experts such as Dewey. The only parents who did take such an interest were wealthy bohemians who established the first progressive schools, all private and filled with their own children. C S Lewis’ Experiment House is an entertaining fictional example of this kind of middle class bohemian progressivism.

For progressivism to become a mass phenomenon, most ordinary parents had to be pushed out of educational decision making, because the vast majority of them stubbornly clung to conservative notions about hard work, discipline and knowledge acquisition. These stubborn parents had to be told that the experts knew better. It was therefore necessary to create a class of educational experts who would become the high priests of the new gnostic religion. The key institution through which this was achieved was Columbia Teachers’ College. Staffed by the leading lights of the progressive movement, such as William Heard Kilpatrick, Columbia sent tens of thousands of teachers out into the hinterlands, filled with evangelical zeal about the new ideas, and determined to usher in the new age of education, liberated from the dead facts of tradition and enlivened with Kilpatrick’s ‘project method’.

Hirsch explains how the education departments of universities deliberately distanced themselves from subject knowledge, because this domain already contained many venerable professors in other departments of the universities, who looked down upon the education professors as cranks and amateurs. In order to carve out their own territory, the education professors had to find something which was uniquely theirs. Progressive pedagogy triumphed because it exactly suited their ambition to establish an independent republic within academia. The comments still frequently made by professors of education echo their battle cry down the last century: pedagogy is a science, a science to which we have the key; all of you subject experts may know more about your subjects than us, but we have this magic tool which unlocks the minds of the young: pedagogy! By definition, this supposed pedagogical science must be divorced from any specific content, or how could the professors of education rule supreme over it? To allow knowledge a central role is to undermine the basis of their power and prestige.

Given that the first professors of education built their academic empire on the basis of anti-knowledge theories, and then produced scores of thousands of teachers in their own image, a situation emerged where the whole education establishment could be threatened by anyone who modestly proposed that children needed to learn subject knowledge, as Hirsch discovered in 1987.

Another factor which entrenched progressivism was the growing ignorance of the teachers themselves. As the twentieth century progressed, the vast majority of American high school teachers, having experienced a knowledge light curriculum at school, then went on to study a knowledge light curriculum at college, majoring in education rather than any specific subject. A similar trend emerged in Britain from the seventies onwards. William Bagley, the thorn in Kilpatrick’s side who was a lone voice in the wilderness at Columbia, insisting on the value of knowledge, repeatedly called for an increase in well qualified teachers in American schools. By well qualified, he meant teachers who were experts in their subjects, not experts in the ‘science’ of pedagogy. His calls went unheard.

Those in government who continue to implement the policy direction initiated by Michael Gove are well-versed in this background. They know that the educational establishment is wedded to progressive ideas so deeply that a kind of creative destruction is needed. It’s really not too hard to understand why they would force all schools to become academies once you have grasped the historical and ideological background. Academisation separates schools institutionally from the influence of the educational establishment: universities, unions and local education advisers. That is why it is the structural model of choice for the current government.


6 thoughts on “The Ideas Behind Forced Academisation

  1. Academies and Parent Voice Are Both Good Social Policies In Education

    The UK is following good advice regarding schools being accountable to the Ministry, thereby bypassing the self-interests that dominate schooling. Why this is happening is not peculiar to the UK alone. It is in other Western countries (Canada, USA, Australia, New Zealand) that schools have become the captives of self-interests and a dominating political/philosophical agenda generally called “progressive”.

    This post correctly identifies that parents generally have a different agenda for schools: “For progressivism to become a mass phenomenon, most ordinary parents had to be pushed out of educational decision making, because the vast majority of them stubbornly clung to conservative notions about hard work, discipline and knowledge acquisition.”

    Again, I say, this has been the common experience in the aforementioned Western nations. In the USA the response has been the gradual growth of alternative models such as charter schools, vouchers and education savings accounts. But, the opposition is vehement because vested interests are not primarily in the field for the best interests of the child.

    Government is well advised when it pays attention to the academic results the academisation model delivers. Here is a quote that supports the return of voice and choice to parents from Berkeley Law professor emeritus John E. Coons, 2002:

    > “There are a lot of benign effects of school choice but, for me, choice is family policy. It is one of the most important things we could possibly do as therapy for the institution of the family, for which we have no substitute. The relationship between the parent and child is very damaged if the parent loses all authority over the child for six hours a day, five days a week, and over the content that is put into the child’s mind.”

    > “What must it be like for people who have raised their children until they’re five years old, and suddenly, in this most important decision about their education, they have no say at all? They’re stripped of their sovereignty over their child.”

    > “And what must it be like for the child who finds that his parents don’t have any power to help him out if he doesn’t like the school?”

    > “It’s a shame that there are no social science studies on the effect of choicelessness on the family. If you are stripped of power—kept out of the decision-making loop—you are likely to experience degeneration of your own capacity to be effective, because you have nothing to do. If you don’t have any responsibilities, you get flabby.”

    To Anthony Radice I want to say — What a profound post this is. I hope you pass it on to the powers that be in the Ministry and Prime Minister’s office.


    • Thanks for your comment. I certainly agree that there are moral reasons, far more important than any academic reasons, for giving parents back their natural authority over the education of their children.


  2. Pingback: Parent Voice, choice and academies | Parents Teaching Parents Parent Voice, choice and academies | Parents Rights & Responsibilities in the education of their children

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