Regressive Education and the Lessons from Singapore


I see that the UK Secretary of State for Education has been having another pop at what he terms ‘progressive’ education this week. Responding to claims that children born in the late 50s achieved better social mobility as a result of grammar schools, Michael Gove (correctly, in my view) said that selective education wasn’t a magic bullet to achieving social equality. So far, so good. But then he cited the influence of ‘progressive education’ and the move away from traditional subjects, rigorously taught, as a more relevant factor.

So, in one breathtaking false causation, he manages to put himself on the side of the angels, by urging a return to a fondly imagined past, all in the name of correcting the ‘moral indefensability’ of social inequality. With respect, minister, I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that. For one thing, as evidence has repeatedly shown, education plays a relatively minor part in creating social equality – social and economic policies, environment, health all combine to prevent young people from poorer backgrounds from having what my Aussie friends would term ‘a fair go’. For another, as Melissa Benn reminded us this week, Britain’s schooling system has never been equal.

I’m not sure if I qualify as a ‘progressive’, but I’m getting pretty fed up with the term being used in a constantly perjorative way, and ‘tradition’ always being associated with ‘rigour’. So, it’s time we progressives fought fire with fire. When it comes to pedagogy, Mr Gove, in my book, is a ‘regressive’, and we should label him thus at every opportunity. Perhaps then he might see how isolated he is. Can you imagine a health minister urging a return to 19th century surgical procedures?

One of the few current MPs who has actually taught in a school, Nick Dakin, made some telling points in a letter to today’s Observer:

 “I have been struck by how out of touch policy-makers are with the challenges facing our young people and those who work with them. Too often, solutions are found for problems that exist in politicians’ minds rather than the real world.

The key things that determine performance are the quality of teaching and the quality of leadership. And the biggest challenges come from the changing nature of young people and the demands of new technology. These are real and genuine. But too often, school leaders are distracted by managing confused ideas and fads and the obsession with structural change.

More than anything else, school and college leaders crave stability. But we now have a government embarked on replacing success with failure, excited by curriculum models for the 1950s rather than the 21st century”

His final point is critical. Even if traditional subjects, rigorously taught, ever did work then (and, as a working-class lad from Jarrow, I was ‘rigorously’ taught Latin in a grammar school till my hands bled), the world has changed so dramatically in the past 50 years, that to imagine they would still work in a digitally connected, unpredictable present, is both naive and patronising.

Mr Gove is constantly citing those countries doing well in PISA tests as the models we should aspire to. Let’s not dwell too long on the Finnish success story – high achievement through abolishing private schooling and introducing ‘progressive’, student-centred pedagogies which blur traditional subject boundaries. Instead, let’s look at Singapore.


Because that’s what I was able to do this week as a guest of the Singapore Ministry of Education. Whilst some have suggested that Singapore’s astonishing rise up the PISA tables is due to traditional teaching methods, including rote memorisation, many people I spoke to argued that it had more to do with almost every child receiving daily injections of ‘cramming’, after school, from private tutors.

Whatever. My point really is that, even if we followed Mr Gove’s advice to copy Singapore, by the time we’d done that, they’d have already moved on. In a two-day intensive workshop, I was asked to share the pedagogies I advocated through the Musical Futures and Learning Futures projects to teachers, researchers and education officials. The result was that a Musical Futures pilot will be starting soon in Singapore. How ’bout that, Mr Gove? The country you most admire is trying out ‘progressive’ approaches developed in the UK!

And why are they doing this? Because the Singaporean education minister, Heng Swee Keat, has made a policy shift towards cultivating creativity and a more holistic education which is ‘less about content knowledge’ and more about getting students to “discern truths from untruths, connect seemingly disparate dots, and create knowledge even as the context changes”. It’s a bold, innovative, future-focused, change of direction, and I’m personally excited to be playing a small part in it. 

Come on, Michael, get with the programme – being a regressive is so 19th century!



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One Response to Regressive Education and the Lessons from Singapore

  1. denissmith says:

    ‘I was ‘rigorously’ taught Latin in a grammar school till my hands bled’ – that must have been the same school as mine.I am with Gove on EBacc but not much else – he now needs to leave the professionals to get on with it.

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