Derek Gillard describes the context and content of the 1967 Plowden Report ‘Children and their Primary Schools’ and assesses the criticisms that have been made of it in the years since it was published. He argues that it is still an important document which should be read widely today.
contents: introduction – background to the plowden report · what plowden said about the curriculum · the plowden report – a chequered history · criticism of the plowden report · plowden today · bibliography · links · how to cite this article
In August 1963 the then Minister of Education, Sir Edward Boyle, asked the Central Advisory Council for Education (England) ‘to consider primary education in all its aspects and the transition to secondary education.’ The Council, under the Chairmanship of Bridget Plowden, presented its report to the Secretary of State for Education and Science, Rt. Hon Anthony Crosland, in October 1966. The Central Advisory Council for Education (Wales), under the leadership of Professor CE Gittins, produced a similar report for Wales which included a valuable chapter on bilingualism. (The translation into Welsh occupied four professors for nine months and sold 26 copies).
There had not been a thorough review of primary education in England since Sir Henry Hadow’s Report of 1931. (And there hasn’t been another one since Plowden). Of her Committee Lady Plowden has said, ‘Some of us were professionals, a few of us were not. We were guided in our enquiries by HMIs [Her Majesty’s Inspectors] who directed us to those parts of the country where what they considered the best practice was taking place’ (Plowden 1987). The Committee’s wide-ranging membership was expected to pass judgement critically and professionally. ‘It was thus to be an exercise in policy analysis’ (Kogan 1987) – one of the first of its kind.
The context in which the Committee worked was characterised by an increasingly liberal view of education and society. ‘Plowden’s membership and terms of reference were a product of the optimism and belief in social engineering of its time’ (Kogan 1987). Selection for secondary education (the ‘eleven-plus’) was being abolished, freeing primary schools from the constraints imposed by the need to ‘get good results’. Streaming (sorting children into classes on the basis of ability or overall intelligence) was being abandoned. Sybil Marshall (Marshall 1963) was writing about the creativity of primary pupils in ‘An Experiment in Education’. Comprehensive schools and middle schools were being established. Teacher-led curriculum innovation was being actively encouraged. Plowden was very much a product of its time, full of enthusiasm and optimism.
The psychological basis of the Plowden Report – Chapter 2 ‘The Children, their Growth and Development’ – is based firmly in Piagetian theory. This is hardly surprising as ‘during the 1960s this work by Piaget and his colleagues was at the peak of its influence. It was very widely known and very widely accepted’ (Donaldson 1978).
The chapter begins with what many regard as the essence of the whole report: ‘At the heart of the educational process lies the child.’ It goes on to describe Piaget’s theory of developmental sequence, that is ‘events which are fixed in their order but varying in the age at which the sequence begins.’ It argues for the existence of a ‘developmental age’ which applies to physical and motor development and probably to emotional and intellectual development.
Piaget’s four sequential stages in intellectual development (sensori-motor, intuitive thought, concrete operations, formal operations) underpin the report’s contentions that ‘a child cannot read without having learned to discriminate shapes’ and ‘until a child is ready to take a particular step forward it is a waste of time to try to teach him to take it.’
The Plowden Report emphasises the need to see children as individuals. ‘Individual differences between children of the same age are so great that any class, however homogeneous it seems, must always be treated as a body of children needing individual and different attention.’ The chapter also deals with testing, especially the question of IQ (Intelligence Quotient) tests, which were often used in eleven plus selection procedures. While it does not dismiss IQ scores out of hand, it does warn that they ‘should not be treated as infallible predictors. Judgements which determine careers should be deferred as long as possible.’
The psychological basis of the report has been questioned by some educationists. Kathy Sylva, for example, has written that ‘Plowden’s reliance on Piaget’s theory and its insistence that discovery learning is always best haven’t stood up well to subsequent research’ (Sylva 1987). She acknowledged that the idea of children learning by their own active efforts comes from Piaget but noted that ‘what the authors of the report suggested was the notion that teachers could and should facilitate constructive learning through everyday classroom practice.’ She pointed out, too, that during the 1970s and 80s there had been ‘a gradual lessening … in acceptance of [Piaget’s] view of cognitive development.’ Her view was shared by Margaret Donaldson. ‘Children are not at any stage as egocentric … [nor] so limited in ability to reason deductively as Piaget and others have claimed’ (Donaldson 1978).
The Plowden Committee applauded the curriculum freedom which teachers had had in increasing measure since the ending of the payment by results system in 1898 and the Elementary Code in 1926. This freedom was being further extended at the time the report was being written by the introduction of comprehensive schools and the abolition of secondary selection – of which the Committee approved. However, it was not entirely convinced that schools had made the most of this freedom. ‘The force of tradition and the inherent conservatism of all teaching professions made for a slow rate of change’.
In relation to the curriculum, the Plowden Report was clear. ‘One of the main educational tasks of the primary school is to build on and strengthen children’s intrinsic interest in learning and lead them to learn for themselves rather than from fear of disapproval or desire for praise.’ The report’s recurring themes are individual learning, flexibility in the curriculum, the centrality of play in children’s learning, the use of the environment, learning by discovery and the importance of the evaluation of children’s progress – teachers should ‘not assume that only what is measurable is valuable.’
The history of Plowden has been chequered, to say the least. With Prime Minister Jim Callaghan’s Ruskin College speech of 1976, it became clear that politicians wanted to take greater control of the school curriculum. The Central Advisory Councils (which had produced the Plowden Report) were themselves abolished, a move which disturbed Maurice Kogan: ‘It seems clear that educational life needs some antidote to the increasing power of political action and the decreasing willingness of the DES, both ministers and officials, to listen to outside thinking’ (Kogan 1987).
Political forces began to shape curriculum thinking and development. Notions of core, common and national curriculum all seemed to have at their root the idea that children were to be fitted for the service of the state or at least to fill their allotted roles in society. ‘Since school education prepares the child for adult life, the way in which the school helps him to develop his potential must also be related to his subsequent needs and responsibilities as an active member of our society.’ (DES 1981) Significantly, Plowden’s view that ‘At the heart of the educational process lies the child’ was abandoned in favour of ‘The school curriculum is at the heart of education’ (DES 1981). However, not everyone agreed. Kathy Sylva commented that ‘Education is about nurturing the moral, aesthetic and creative aspects in children’s development, not about “getting the country somewhere”‘ (Sylva 1987). In fact, in the twenty years following publication of the report, almost every document on the primary curriculum contained echoes of Plowden to a greater or lesser extent. A Framework for the School Curriculum (DES 1980a), for example, stressed the need ‘to help pupils to develop lively, enquiring minds, the ability to question and argue rationally.’ The Swann Report (DES 1985) asked for ‘a powerful commitment to see children as individuals’ and A View of the Curriculum (DES 1980b) talked of ‘individual differences and common needs’ The report continued
The school curriculum must allow for differences … it must contribute to children’s present well-being whatever the age and stage of growth and development they have reached … The development and use of local opportunities, the special skills of teachers and the enthusiasm of children should be used to enhance the quality of work beyond what might come from a simple uniformity of practice. (DES 1980b)
Such statements could have come straight out of Plowden.
In the early 1980s schools were more likely to be criticised for not taking on board the lessons of Plowden rather than the reverse. ‘In a majority of schools, over-concentration on the practice of basic literacy and numeracy unrelated to the context in which they are needed means that these skills are insufficiently extended or applied … Pupils are given insufficient responsibility for pursuing their own enquiries and how to tackle their work’ (DES 1985). And again, ‘Teachers … have often tended to emphasise the content of their subjects instead of their importance as ways of experiencing and knowing the real world … the curriculum needs to fit the child’ (Schools Council 1981).
Hostility to Plowden’s philosophy of primary education had been growing since the 1970s. The writers of the ‘Black Papers’ and their followers criticised much of what the primary schools were doing and blamed the Plowden Report at least in part for what they saw as undesirable trends. Roger Scruton, for example, suggested that there were three main reasons for ‘the educational decline we have witnessed in recent years’ (Scruton 1987). He blamed television, the attitude of parents and ‘the rise and triumph of the “educationalists”.’ He viewed Plowden as a landmark in this process.
Scruton’s arguments (like those of his friends) did not stand up to critical scrutiny. There was no research evidence to show that educational standards had declined; indeed, all the evidence suggested that standards, especially of literacy and numeracy, had risen steadily since the end of the second world war. It should also be noted that Plowden warned against excesses. The tabloid press notion that education was now to be all play and no work was mischievous. Lady Plowden has written:
We wrote that we “endorsed the trend towards individual and active learning” … yet we gave a warning: “we certainly do not deny the value of learning ‘by description’ or the need for practice of skills and consolidation of knowledge”.’ And again, ‘Teachers must select those of our suggestions which their knowledge and skill enable them to put into practice in the circumstances of their own schools.’ (Plowden 1987)
The ‘William Tyndale affair’, however, gave critics a field day. (William Tyndale was a north London primary school where, in 1974, some of the staff espoused an extreme form of romantic liberalism which eventually resulted in chaos). A careful reading of the report on the affair shows clearly that it was a case of mismanagement. It was nonsense to suggest, as some did, that this was the inevitable outcome of Plowden-inspired progressive education policies. It was the outcome of incompetence.
Even in the late 1980s there were still voices raised in support of Plowden’s philosophy. In 1987, Benford and Ingham wrote in the Times Educational Supplement (6 March) about the findings of a House of Commons Select Committee Report Achievement in Primary Schools. In their article ‘Another Leap Forward’ they suggested that it was a pity that more schools had not acted upon Plowden’s suggestions in a thorough and well-prepared way and concluded that ‘Inaction by [the teaching] profession necessitated the translation of Hadow (1931) into Plowden (1967). Each was welcomed in its own time. Each was subsequently neglected where it mattered most: in the classroom.’ On the twentieth anniversary of the publication of the Plowden Report, a leader in the Times Educational Supplement (6 March 1987) summed up the situation well. ‘The Plowden Report has been misquoted, misunderstood, over-simplified, torn to shreds by academics and used by a few schools to justify some fairly mindless practice.’ Plowden’s philosophy played no part in Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s educational agenda. Her Conservative governments, from 1979 onwards, sought to turn the public education service into a market-place. The culmination of this process was the 1988 Education ‘Reform’ Act, which, with its imposition of a subject-based National Curriculum and associated regime of testing and published league tables, forced schools to train pupils to get good test results so as to compete for pupils. ‘Under the combined pressures of the National Curriculum, HM Inspectorate and OFSTED exhortations and criticism from across the political spectrum, primary schools are returning to formal, whole-class teaching methods and are teaching knowledge organised within traditional subject categories in a didactic manner. For many contemporary critics of primary education their bete noire is the Plowden Report’ (David McNamara, Professor of Education at the University of Hull, The Times Educational Supplement, 21 March 1997).
Regrettably, New Labour has continued to embrace this approach to education with even more tests, targets and divisive elitism. It has also sought to control not just what teachers teach but how they teach it. The Literacy Hour and Numeracy Hour spell out in detail exactly how children are to be taught reading, writing and arithmetic.
Despite all the criticism and hostility, there is still considerable interest in what Plowden had to say. My own 1987 piece ‘Plowden and the Primary Curriculum Twenty Years On’ has been read on my website 9,000 times in the past four years and I regularly get emails – mainly from student teachers – asking where they can find a copy of the report or what it says about various issues. There are hopeful signs that the educational pendulum may now be beginning to swing away from the sterility of the National Curriculum and back to a greater awareness of the importance of creativity and spontaneity in children’s learning.
Award-winning author Philip Pullman has been campaigning to get creativity back into the school curriculum. (All around you is silence, The Guardian, 5 June 2003) And it seems to be working. At a conference on creativity in schools in June 2003, Education Secretary Charles Clarke and Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell both affirmed in unequivocal terms the place of the arts in the curriculum. Theatre director Jude Kelly has argued that ‘We cannot hope to be original or imaginative in civic and commercial life if we do not nurture creativity in school’ (Britain needs creative people, The Guardian, 29 June 2004).
Primary schools are being urged to improve pupils’ speaking and listening skills. Education correspondent Rebecca Smithers (Teachers to work on pupils lost for words, The Guardian, 13 November 2003) described the scheme as ‘the first such programme in the world’. In fact, training in oracy skills was seen as vital by Plowden almost forty years ago. David McNamara has suggested that universities are embracing some of the progressive educational methods recommended by Plowden. ‘At the very time when educationists and political commentators line up to condemn progressive teaching methods in primary schools, those self-same methods are being actively encouraged in our universities to foster student learning.’ (Plowden’s message is alive and well – in the universities, The Times Educational Supplement, 21 March 1997). So perhaps, after years of criticism – much of it unfair, the Plowden Report is finally being rehabilitated.
Plowden is a voice from the past but one which urgently needs hearing again today. When politicians realise that what is measurable is not all that is valuable, when teachers begin to notice that children learn nothing by being tested, when parents are sick of their young children suffering from exam-induced stress, when the public begins to realise that the results of national tests can always be manipulated to achieve politicians’ targets, and when decent people decide to stand up against the name-and-shame culture of failure, then someone, somewhere, is going to remember that ‘at the heart of the educational process lies the child.’
The Plowden Report still stands as an invaluable analysis of the needs and possibilities of the primary school.
Benford M and Ingham A (1987) Another Leap Forward The Times Educational Supplement 6 March 1987
Central Advisory Council for Education (1967) Children and their Primary Schools (‘The Plowden Report’), London: HMSO. The full text of the report will be available on Derek Gillard’s website.
Department of Education and Science (1980a) A Framework for the School Curriculum, London: Department of Education and Science.
Department of Education and Science (1980b) A View of the Curriculum, London: Department of Education and Science.
Department of Education and Science (1981) The School Curriculum, London: Department of Education and Science.
Department of Education and Science (1985) Better Schools, London: Department of Education and Science.
Department of Education and Science (1985) The Swann Report, London: Department of Education and Science.
Donaldson, Margaret (1978) Children’s Minds, London: Fontana.
Kogan, Maurice (1987) ‘The Plowden Report Twenty Years On’, Oxford Review of Education Vol. 13, No. 1.
Marshall, Sybil (1963) An Experiment in Education, London: Cambridge University Press.
Plowden, Bridget (1987) ‘”Plowden” Twenty Years On’, Oxford Review of Education Vol. 13, No. 1.
Schools Council (1981) The Practical Curriculum, London: Methuen.
Scruton, Roger (1987) ‘Expressionist Education’, Oxford Review of Education Vol. 13, No. 1.
Sylva, Kathy (1987) ‘Plowden: history and prospect’, Oxford Review of Education Vol. 13, No. 1.
Derek Gillard’s website: The Education Archive includes The Plowden Project. The full text the Report is now on-line.
Lady Plowden. Obituary by Anne Corbett (The Guardian 3 October 2000) Consensus-seeking committee chairman whose controversial report changed the course of primary education.
A Tribute to a Kind, Thoughtful, Intelligent President. Tribute to Lady Plowden by Peter Clyne, ex-Chair of the NIACE Executive Committee.
Death Of An Unsung Heroine. Tribute to Lady Plowden by Professor Trevor Kerry, Research Professor in the International Educational Leadership Centre in the University of Lincolnshire and Humberside, and Senior Vice President of the College of Teachers.
Derek Gillard taught in primary and middle schools in England for more than thirty years, including eleven as a head teacher. He retired in 1997 but continues to write on educational issues for Forum magazine and his own website.
How to cite this article: Gillard, D. (2002). ‘The Plowden Report’, the encyclopaedia of informal education. [http://infed.org/mobi/the-plowden-report/. Retrieved: insert date].
Acknowledgement: The picture is Working together by Core Education. Sourced from Flickr and reproduced under a CCbyNDNC2 licence. https://www.flickr.com/photos/coreednz/30638629693/
© Derek Gillard 2004