A Nagging Problem with Robert Peal’s Progressively Worse

This blog is not intended as a review of Robert Peal’s book, Progressively Worse:The Burden of Bad Ideas in British Schools, it is merely an observation – a sort of inquiry if you like – of something I noticed while I was reading it last week. I’ve had a number of conversations since, one of them including Mr. Peal, and the observation won’t got away. I’ve tried ignoring it, but it seems quite persistent. So here it is…

When I started studying history at university in the 1980’s the first book we were asked to read was E.H. Carr’s, ‘What is History?’ I don’t know if undergraduates still read this book, but back then it was considered a seminal work. Carr, as the title suggests, was interested in exploring the relationship between the stuff of history – events, people, and trends – and the job of the historian to make sense of it all and to communicate that understanding to others. History, he argued, is open to interpretation:

“The re-constitution of the past in the historian’s mind is dependent on empirical evidence. But it is not in itself an empirical process, and cannot consist in a mere recital of facts. On the contrary, the process of reconstitution governs the selection and interpretation of the facts: this, indeed, is what makes them historical facts… the facts of history never come to us ‘pure’, since they do not and cannot exist in a pure form: they are always refracted through the mind of the recorder… when we take up a work of history, our first concern should be not with the facts which it contains but with the historian who wrote it.” [p.16]

He follows this maxim with a word of advice, “When you read a work of history, always listen out for the buzzing. If you can detect none, either you are tone deaf or your historian is a dull dog.” [p.18]

I don’t think even those as deaf as post (ideologically speaking) could fail to hear the buzzing in Peal’s writing. Here is a sample: “There are currently two education systems in Britain. One is respected and replicated the world over; the other is a persistent source of national embarrassment. They are the independent sector and the state maintained sector.” [p.262] As buzzing goes, this is as loud as it gets. But, I’ve no problem with this, Peal is entitled to his views and, although I like my historians to be a little less bombastic, a strongly expressed opinion is more welcome than pretending you have no opinion at all.

Peal’s tone is not what is bothering me. What’s bothering me, and won’t go away, is the way (on at least one occasion) he seems to ‘bend’ the facts to suit his narrative. For historians this is a real problem. Not because its hard to do, but because its easy. As Carr observes: “By and large, the historian will get the kind of facts he wants… facts are like fish swimming about in a vast ocean; and what the historian catches will depend mainly on what part of the ocean he chooses to fish in.” [p.18]

It is, therefore, the historian’s duty to be careful about the way he uses his evidence. If he only chooses those facts that serve his argument, then he is in danger of loosing the trust of the reader. It is a matter of credibility.

As Carr says: “The duty of the historian to respect his facts is not exhausted by the obligation to see that his facts are accurate. He must seek to bring into the picture all known or knowable facts relevant, in one sense or another, to the theme on which he is engaged and to the interpretation proposed.” [p.22] This is like a covenant between the reader and the historian. The reader does not have the time to do all the reading around the subject, so he has to trust that the historian is not being unduly selective. Of course, the historian can’t include everything, that would be impossible, but he must not deceive the reader by missing out important information or foregrounding facts that support his argument, while passing over those that don’t.

Which brings us back to my niggling observation. Since reading Carr, I have become particularly distrustful of historians and commentators who try to tell me how to think. This is not at all a negative disposition, I try to remain open to new ideas and interpretations, but it is cautious. As a consequence, I am particularly wary of anything that sounds like an exaggerated truth.

With this in mind I came across the following passage in Peal’s book:

“According to a survey conducted by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate on behalf of the Plowden Report, around 21 per cent of schools were already rated as ‘good’ or ‘very good’ at exhibiting the features recommended by the committee. A further 47 percent were rated as ‘average’.[Plowden, vol.2 p.225] These desired features were divided into five categories: ‘provision for individual rates of progress’; ‘opportunities for creative work’; readiness to reconsider the content of the curriculum’; ‘awareness of the unity of knowledge’; and rather unbelievably ‘permissive discipline’.” [Peal p. 29]

It was the phrase, ‘permissive discipline’ that sprung out. Already forewarned by David Didau in his review, I was on the look out for it. It is such a strange term (isn’t it an oxymoron?) and I was interested to see how it would appear in Peal’s book.

Peal really makes a lot of the Plowden report: “The Plowden Report represents a high point in British society’s faith in the innate goodness of the child. With scant regard for evidence, it codified the romantic liberalism of the 1960s into a profoundly impactful document.” [Peal p.30] With this in mind, it would be fair to assume the quote he chose from the report must represent a central tenet of the authors. If not, why would Peal include it?

At this point it worth remembering the Plowden Report was published in 1967 in two volumes: Volume 1: The Report (555 pages) contained the report itself, consisting of 32 chapters, notes of reservation, three annexes, a glossary and an index. And Volume 2: Research and Surveys (633 pages), which contained the research and surveys that underpinned the report.

Although Peal is right to say the sales of the report were remarkable, it is, however, much more difficult to say how many people actually read it. And, of those that did, how many of them looked at the research and surveys in Vol.2. I certainly didn’t when I read it, which might explain why I had trouble recalling the phrase, ‘permissive discipline’ when I came across it in Peal’s book.

Fortunately, the whole of the Plowden Report is available on the Education in England website, which makes it very easy to search the document and find out where it turns up. After a bit of a search I found it on page 225 of the second volume. This is 780 pages into the report, in an annex: hardly central to report.

Anyway, what does ‘permissive discipline’ even mean? I’ve never come across it before. It’s a very strange term. Perhaps if we take a look at what Plowden says about discipline in the main report we’ll get a better idea of what she meant. The following quotes are all from Vol.1:

“We believe that the atmosphere in a school run on these lines is healthier than one in which discipline is authoritarian, and can foster self-discipline, a sense of responsibility for others in the community, and honesty in action and in thought.” [p.267]

“It is clear that to change a school run on traditional lines to one run on free lines requires faith and courage. The fact that a substantial number of schools have made the change is evidence that these qualities have not been wanting. They are certainly the first requirements in a reforming head, but they are not the only ones. It is not a question of saying ‘freedom is in, discipline is out’, an attitude which could lead to instant disaster.” [p.268]

“Time wasting occupations and exercises ‘to keep the children quiet while the teacher is busy, or marking the registers’ are fatal to good discipline and to good learning and there is no place for them, or need for them, in the kind of school we are discussing.” [p.268]

“Many older teachers brought up on authoritarian precepts may feel hostile or contemptuous when they are told of ‘free discipline’ and, even if sympathetic to the idea, may feel afraid of trying it. The thought of the possible chaos is too daunting. Some may genuinely doubt whether, even if it comes off, it is good for the children. They fear that the school would be too unlike the world outside where people have to struggle, learn to take orders and face uncongenial and uninteresting tasks. We sympathise with these fears and anxieties, but the last one at least is quite unfounded. We believe that the modern, relaxed, friendly approach is a much better preparation for life in contemporary society than the old authoritarian one.” [p.269]

And so on. There are 27 references to ‘discipline’ in Vol.1, most of them are like these. They are certainly progressive for 1967, but hardly ‘permissive’. So what does the term mean and why does it crop up in an HMI survey? Perhaps this next quote from Plowden will make things clearer:

“In a single class there may be children who are regularly and perhaps brutally thrashed at home, children who are taught implicitly or explicitly that all authority is an enemy and children who have never known any consistent discipline or control, let alone warm affection and interest.” [p. 269]

Note the line, “regularly and perhaps brutally thrashed at home”. We have to remember beating children in 1960s was still a regular form of discipline, even in schools. Is it possible Plowden was not arguing for the kind of ‘permissive discipline’ we imagine, but just for a change from the kind of authoritarian discipline that was still dealt out routinely to misbehaving children? I think this passage on punishment helps:


We have made it clear that the kind of school that we should like to see is one in which the delights as well as the rigours and demands of learning are built into the whole life of the place, so that there is little or no need for the stimulus of marks and class places and rewards, or for the sanctions of punishment in the cruder sense. Such schools, as we have said, are not visions of the future. There are many of them. Nevertheless, many teachers will feel that punishment is sometimes necessary and that the right to give it when it is judged to be necessary ought not to be withheld. Few indeed will now consider it in any way positively ‘good for children’ to be punished, and few will regard punishment as a cure either for deep seated evils, such as persistent cruelty, or for laziness, inattention and poor work. Punishment will be defended simply as a means to order. A single unruly member cannot be allowed to upset the whole of a class. The boy who ‘tries it on’ just to see how much the teacher will take, must discover quite soon that he will not take much. The child who persistently ignores rules of safety, for example, when crossing the road, must be sharply reminded of them. This we accept and we think that the decision whether to punish or not must be left to the individual teacher acting within the policy of the school. It is unwise to try to lay down precise rules which would confine individual professional judgement, but the excessive use of punishment of any kind should be regarded as an acknowledgement of someone’s failure.

What kind of punishment should be given is more open to doubt. We have little hesitation in saying that punishment ought not to humiliate a child, though it sometimes ought to humble him. But children differ. Something that will bitterly humiliate one child may be accepted with cheerful indifference by another. Sarcasm is a weapon that should never be employed. A punishment must be understood by the child and be seen to be just and to this extent accepted by him; the most difficult children may be, at least temporarily, beyond this kind of understanding and be afflicted with a sense of injustice in spite of every attempt to remove it. The conclusion seems to be that in the matter of how to punish as well as in that of whether to punish, the judgement of the teacher must be respected, although in the most difficult cases expert advice on problems of behaviour should be sought from school doctors and child guidance clinics. We do not feel justified in leaving the argument there. Corporal punishment appears to us to be in a special category and to need special consideration.

We have considered the opinions of the teaching profession and of HM Inspectors and have studied the regulations of local education authorities. We have also considered the views of psychologists, a sample of parental opinion and practice in other countries.

From the evidence available to us the following conclusions can be drawn:

(a) The overwhelming majority (between 80 per cent and 90 per cent) of the teaching profession are against the abolition of corporal punishment, though few support it except as a final sanction. (1, 2, 3, 4)

(b) Public opinion appears to be in favour of its retention and a considerable majority of parents agree to its occasional use.

(c) Only one local education authority forbids its use, but there is great diversity in regulations, some of which have not been revised for 20 to 30 years. To some extent local authority regulations reflect public opinion and the lack of any pressure for change; the infrequent revision of regulations may also be explained by a decline in corporal punishment (5).

(d) While there are few primary schools in which corporal punishment is never used, there are a large number in which it is used only rarely and its use is on the decrease. Infants and girls seldom receive it. (6)

(e) The associations of psychologists consulted by the Council agree that the advantages of corporal punishment are outweighed by its disadvantages. (7, 8)

The present legal position is that a teacher, who stands in loco parentis to a school child, is held to be justified in using a reasonable amount of force by way of correction. Magistrates can and do convict when they judge that an unreasonable amount of force has been used. Although it would be technically possible to make it a legal offence for a teacher to inflict any degree of corporal punishment on a child in school, this would present difficulties in practice. It would in particular make a teacher vulnerable to malicious prosecution. Moreover, it could be asked whether the same sanction should not apply to parents as well as teachers. In Denmark it has been possible to abolish corporal punishment in both school and home because public opinion was strongly behind the measure.

It has been almost universally outlawed in other western countries. (9) It can be associated with psychological perversion affecting both beater and beaten and it is ineffective in precisely those cases in which its use is most hotly defended. We think the time has come to drop it. After full consideration, we recommend that the infliction of physical pain as a recognised method of punishment in primary schools should be forbidden.

The most convenient method of carrying out our recommendations in the case of maintained schools seems to be an amendment of the Schools Regulations to provide that the infliction of physical pain as a method of punishment should not be allowed. No comparable sanction is available for independent schools generally and to prohibit corporal punishment in them would involve an amendment of the law. We believe that the law should be amended so as to give power to the Secretary of State to deny registration to any independent school in which the infliction of physical pain is a recognised form of punishment. In the meantime we recommend that no independent school in which this practice obtains should be granted recognition as efficient and we urge the professional associations of the independent schools to do everything in their power to ensure that it is discontinued in non-recognised schools. We hope that the schools themselves will take steps to abandon the practice entirely.

Our recommendations are likely to meet with some opposition. We may be accused of encouraging softness and of indulging the evil doer. The majority of teachers sincerely believe that corporal punishment may be necessary as a constraint. Indeed, a lack of corporal punishment in school will often contrast sharply with what happens in the child’s home. We believe, however, that the primary schools, as in so much else, should lead public opinion, rather than follow it. Often corporal punishment is the result of school conditions trying the patience of both teachers and pupils. Smaller classes and the presence of teachers’ aides (see Chapter 24) in all schools, particularly in the educational priority areas, may help those schools whose conditions are such that corporal punishment seems difficult to avoid. Teachers need to give time and individual attention to children who get into trouble; persuasion is a time-consuming business and cannot easily take place if a class is too large. On theoretical grounds alone, we believe that the kind of relationship which ought to exist between teacher and child cannot be built up in an atmosphere in which the infliction of physical pain is regarded as a normal sanction. The psychological evidence which we sought also supports this view. Our Report makes it clear at many points that we believe in discipline. But it can only come from a relationship between teacher and child in which there is mutual respect and affection. There is nothing soft or flabby about this relationship. It is impaired by disorder, untidiness, boredom and slackness and only flourishes in an atmosphere of order and purposefulness. To achieve the right balance between encouragement and restraint, between permissiveness and direction, between reward and admonition, between withdrawal and intervention, is the teacher’s art. It is with this art that much of this report is concerned and the art is not simply an amalgam or sum total of skills, knowledge, methods and aids, but rather a combination of these with judgement, discrimination, sensitivity, sympathy, perception and imagination, all of which are involved in the exercise of discipline and the education of children.


(i) Decisions on punishment should generally be left to the professional judgement of the individual teacher acting within the policy of the school.

(ii) The infliction of physical pain as a method of punishment in primary schools should be forbidden. Schools Regulations, which apply only to maintained schools, should be amended accordingly.

(iii) The Secretary of State should be given power to deny registration to any independent school in which the infliction of physical pain is a recognised method of punishment. Until such time as a change in the law can be made, no independent school in which this practice obtains should be recognised as efficient, and the professional associations of the independent schools should endeavour to ensure its discontinuance in non-recognised schools.” [Ref. Vol.1 pps.269-272]

Sorry for the length of the quote, but I think it is justified if we are to understand the context of the report and the fine line Plowden and the other authors where walking when they tackled the subject of discipline and punishment in schools at the time. It is easy now to forget what schools were like in the past, I went to a wonderful village primary in the early 70s that used the new progressive methods recommended by Plowden. Learning was exciting, fun, and challenging. There was no problem with discipline. I learnt a lot and developed a life-long love of learning. Following this I went to a traditionally run secondary modern, where fear and corporal punishment were a daily occurrence. Half the students in my final year left before Easter without taking a single exam. I hated that school and still do. I learnt nothing, except how not to be as an adult. This doesn’t mean progressive education was the answer. Mistakes were made and some progressive schools were terrible. Plowden warned them! But neither does it mean all the problems of our current system can be blamed on the progressives. This over-states the argument.

So, we return to Peal’s use of the term ‘permissive discipline’. While it is true the term does appear in the report, tucked away on page 225 of Vol.2, the question is, does it represent a genuine interpretation of the report’s recommendations or is Peal guilty of cherry-picking? Furthermore, if it does, then does this undermine Peal’s argument and his credibility?

I’ll leave you to make up your own minds.

Carr, I think, would have no trouble deciding: “The duty of the historian to respect his facts is not exhausted by the obligation to see that his facts are accurate. He must seek to bring into the picture all known or knowable facts relevant, in one sense or another, to the theme on which he is engaged and to the interpretation proposed.” [Carr p.22]



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