PISA, Private Schools and Progressivism

We live in interesting times. This is from yesterday’s Guardian:

Gove’s ‘progressive betrayal’ seems to be a private school phenomenon

My research using the Pisa data found that state school pupils report more ‘traditional’ teaching than in private schools, says Laura McInerney

Liz Truss, schools minister, seethed about the fact that England’s relatively low use of textbooks compared with other countries is in part due to progressivist “child-centred learning”.

Likewise, the education secretary, Michael Gove, gave a speech entitled The Progressive Betrayal in which he argued that such ideas had addled a generation; that restoring rigour was a priority, in particular, more memorisation of facts and “disciplined” learning – which seems to mean being silent and facing the front.

If it were true that “progressive” thinking had taken over, it would be problematic. But how many Sats or GCSE or A-level teachers will tell you their class aren’t memorising anything? And is it not possible that the reason why students might be asked to talk, or work in a group, or complete a task that isn’t sitting and memorising, is because they are at school for six hours a day and there might be a benefit in varying the types of tasks? If my rhetoric does not convince you, perhaps the data will.

progressive education

Inconveniently for the government’s narrative, when answering questions about the types of activities they do in class, British students report doing many more “traditional” activities than “progressive” ones. Compared with high-performing nations such as Hong Kong, Singapore, Finland and Estonia, British students are more likely to learn materials by heart and have clear learning goals set for them by the teacher in each lesson. Half of British students reported that their teacher tells them what to do in every lesson, compared to just a quarter of students in Hong Kong and Finland. This sounds a lot like the “teacher-centred” approach that Liz Truss would have us believe was banished during the 1960s.

Only 6% of British students said they work in groups in every lesson and only 8% said the teacher commonly allows students a say in the planning of the lesson (two activities often considered “progressive”). Both figures were lower than the OECD averages for these activities, and a lot lower than Singaporean students experienced, even though Singapore is often praised by Michael Gove.

The data also contradicts the idea that teachers carry the “soft bigotry of low expectations” – an incantation repeated more than once by the education secretary. Nearly half of British students strongly agreed with the statement that their teacher encouraged them to work hard. Only a quarter of Hong Kong students and less than one in five Korean students felt the same.

An even more inconvenient truth emerges about private schools. Commonly heralded as the last bastion of “traditional” schooling, my own research using the 2009 Pisa data found that while state school pupils reported more traditional teaching, private school students reported higher rates of being asked to express opinions in class, completing group work, and having their teacher relate learning to their lives. So if there is a hotbed of progressivism in Britain, it probably isn’t the state schools.

Please read the entire article here:

It’s an interesting and saddening picture that’s drawn in this article. Interesting because

  • It again highlights the sheer nonsense coming from Gove and Truss
  • The PISA research confirms that the majority of our schools still adheres to a 19th century pedagogy
  • The research shows that Finland, Singapore and Hong Kong achieve very high scores in the PISA tests and have adopted a 21st Century ‘progressive’ pedagogy – putting strong emphasis on problem solving and critical thinking skills which are assessed in the PISA tests.

It’s saddening because

  • Our children and young people should be able to enjoy school and enjoy learning that’s holistic and progressive, and involves problem solving and critical thinking.
  • They should be able to learn collaboratively and cooperatively as well as independently, according to their varying needs and tasks.
  • They should be able to co-develop and co-determine learning schedules, objectives, tasks and methods since a creative input into their own learning is essential for higher levels of engagement and motivation.
  • Their learning should be relevant and be seen to be “related to their own lives”.
  • They should be enabled and encouraged to express opinions and share their ideas, their discoveries and questions, and in doing so develop empathy and teamwork skills.

High achieving independent schools such as Eton, Wellington and Stephen Perse are proud of their ‘progressive’ and pupil-centred approaches, which set out to make learning holistic, interesting, active, engaging and stimulating. They understand that their students need and deserve no less. Many other schools and teachers are similarly committed to these approaches.


So why does Laura McInerney say “If it were true that “progressive” thinking had taken over, it would be problematic”? Progressive thinking embraces the need for young people to have a broad and deep understanding of the world. Progressive thinking embraces the need for high levels of literacy, the ability to communicate well in grammatically correct Standard English, the ability to memorise essential number facts, the ability to think logically and scientifically, etc.


Please take a look at the comments ‘below the line’ of this article. At the time of writing there’s a strange absence of ‘traditionalist’ trolls and naysayers there. Could it be that these annoying types have been floored by this article? We must certainly hope so.

Related articles:


Education and the Real Enemies of Promise (3diassociates.wordpress.com)


About 3D Eye

Gary Foskett and Clare Blackhall are educationalists, writers and consultants. We work with schools and other organisations who share our vision of how schools, businesses, etc should work in the 21st Century. We also run courses and contribute to conferences - speaking about our three dimensional model of intelligences and how schools, colleges and universities can develop the full potential of all their staff and students. We also offer consultancy for businesses and public sector organisations to support staff training and organisational change and development. For more detailed information read our blog at https://3diassociates.wordpress.com/ or see our website at www.3diassociates.com.
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