A Loser’s Creed

Andrew Pettegree, an historian of the early modern age, described the principle of religious toleration as “a loser’s creed.” As the Protestants emerged, in their not-quite-infinite variety, they demanded to be tolerated. But where Protestants were able to seize control they conveniently discovered a renewed appreciation of the virtues of uniformity and forgot their commitment to tolerance.

It’s easy to smirk. Was there ever a time when people believed in toleration? Certainly the ‘enormous condescension of posterity’ feels particularly inappropriate in our own time, with our various political sects simultaneously committed to the principle of free expression for themselves, while considering their own intolerance of heresy intrinsic to their moral righteousness.

Anyway. This isn’t going to be about left-wing students and no-platforming, or Breitbart and Milo, or even about the intricacies of the theology which tells us that Rachel Dolezal is the Worst, Most Oppressive Person Ever while Paris Lees is the Best, Most Oppressed Person Ever. It’s going to be about schools.

When I started teaching, fourteen years ago, the progressives were in the ascendancy, and traditionalists were being burned at the stake. The Holy Ofsted enforced whole-word recognition and discovery learning, and were supported by true believers and committed careerists in senior management teams throughout the land.

Now things have changed. The reformation is underway. Shift is Happening. Let’s not get carried away. The reformers aren’t dominant yet. Head Masters, including my boss, continue to try to impress parents by telling them that their children will be doing jobs which haven’t yet been invented, while some inspectors continue to reward group work. The sale of iPads continues to persuade credulous or desperate buyers that there is a shortcut through the purgatory that is teaching the pupils what they need to learn.The progressives continue to dominate the university departments of education. But even some of them are beginning to make their accommodation with the new order: witness these latter-day Vicars of Bray asserting that any attempt to distinguish between the different schools of thought is to create a false dichotomy.

It’s going to be difficult to dislodge the new traditionalism. Its practitioners have been emboldened. There are now entire schools explicitly committed to its embrace. There will, no doubt, be a counter-reformation at some stage; but for now the progressives are on the defensive, worried about being driven into priest-holes, just as primary teachers used to – in some places perhaps still do – have to hide their use of synthetic phonics instruction from their bosses and from their SENCOs. I am seeing debates in the educational blogosphere, and on Twitter, about teacher autonomy; only now it’s the traditionalists who are debating just how far the progressives should be permitted to inflict their ideology on the poor defenceless children.

Don’t they remember what it was like? Of course they do. But just like sixteenth-century Protestants they’re not in the mood to live and let live. Because they have The Truth, and they know that only their way will lead to salvation.

And they know it because of The Research.

And this is where I start to worry.I think I’m about as traditional as it’s possible to be. I’d wear a gown if I could, and I wouldn’t care that it’d make me look like Severus Snape, because I share his disapproval of foolish wand-waving and silly incantations.

But I’m not on Team Tradition because educational research leads me in that direction. (Traditionalism is much more than ‘what works’.) I am, of course, like everyone, pleased when a peer-reviewed study confirms my own preferences and prejudices. But I don’t base my approach on the findings of that research. Because the findings are not robust enough.

No, they’re not. I’m not disparaging educational research in its entirety. But let’s not forget that there can be no randomised double-blind placebo-controlled trials in our discipline. Research in education is like research in criminology. Educationalists, like criminologists, can tell us a lot about their field of expertise, though like criminologists they are suspected of being heavily politicised.(And who are we kidding? Brain Gym, Neuro-Linguistic Programming, Learning Styles, Multiple Intelligences, Growth Mindset … all allegedly supported by incontrovertible evidence, all coherent with educational progressivism, all tosh.)

Educationalists can, in broad terms, tell us what helps pupils learn, and what doesn’t, just as criminologists can, in broad terms, tell us what contributes to crime, and what doesn’t. This – if it can be trusted – can inform the teacher just as it can inform the police officer. But this can only ever be a broad guide. The individual members of a class – and indeed the collective character of a class – will have a relationship with their teacher. Some things will work well with them, and some things won’t, just as individual criminals have their own motivations. It may be that more often than not the research will to some extent at least align with what will on aggregate work well with the individual and the class.

But I worry about the brave new world in which the principle of ‘the best lesson,’ prepared in a think-tank or by a mandarin in a multi-academy trust, in accordance with The Research, attains the sort of unchallengeable status which progressive methods used to enjoy. Sola fide in the new orthodoxy will be demanded. The principle of sola scriptura will be applied to teachers: just teach what the official lesson says.

And it won’t make everything better, because it’s based on a seductive but wrong idea – what Edmund Burke described as “the cant of ‘measures, not men.'” Effective teaching will always involve teachers adapting what they do to the pupils in front of them.

I am reminded of the West Wing episode The Supremes, when President Bartlet has a Supreme Court appointment to make. He interviews a candidate who tells him that “my allegience to the eccentricities of a case will reliably outweigh my allegience to any position you might wish I held.” He doesn’t get the nod. But he’d have made a decent teacher.

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