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Plowden and the Primary Curriculum: twenty years on
Derek Gillard
March 1987

copyright Derek Gillard 2001
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Gillard D (1987) Plowden and the Primary Curriculum: twenty years on

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Introduction: background to the report

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 since the publication of The primary school (Hadow 1931).

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 who directed us to those parts of the country where what they considered the best practice was taking place. (Plowden 1987:119)
Maurice Kogan's view is that 'Plowden's membership and terms of reference were a product of the optimism and belief in social engineering of its time' (Kogan 1987:13). Its wide-ranging membership was expected to pass judgement critically and professionally. 'It was thus to be an exercise in policy analysis' (Kogan 1987:14) - one of the first of its kind.

The psychological basis of the report

Chapter 2 of the report 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 1978:34).

The chapter begins with what might be said to be the centre of the whole report: 'At the heart of the educational process lies the child' (Plowden 1967:7). 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' (Plowden 1967:7). It suggests a 'developmental age' which applies physically and to motor development 'and it is highly probable they also apply to emotional and intellectual development' (Plowden 1967:9).

Piaget's four sequential stages in intellectual development (sensori-motor, intuitive thought, concrete operations, formal operations) are the basis of such statements as 'a child cannot read without having learned to discriminate shapes' (Plowden 1967:18) 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' (Plowden 1967:25).

'At the heart of the educational process lies the child' - the individual child. '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' (Plowden 1967:25). This is a theme I shall return to later, but it is important at this stage to recognise its grounding in the psychological basis of the report.

The chapter also deals with testing - in particular, the question of IQ scores. While it does not dismiss them out of hand, it does warn that 'IQ scores ... should not be treated as infallible predictors. Judgements which determine careers should be deferred as long as possible' (Plowden 1967:26).

How has the psychological basis of the report stood up over the past twenty years? Kathy Sylva is not entirely convinced. 'Plowden's reliance on Piaget's theory and its insistence that discovery learning is always best haven't stood up well to subsequent research' (Halsey and Sylva 1987:9). She acknowledges that the idea of children learning by their own active efforts comes from Piaget but suggests that 'what the authors of the report suggested was the notion that teachers could and should facilitate constructive learning through everyday classroom practice' (Halsey and Sylva 1987:9). She points out, too, that over the past decade there has been 'a gradual lessening ... in acceptance of [Piaget's] view of cognitive development' (Halsey and Sylva 1987:9).

Her view is shared by Margaret Donaldson. 'Children are not at any stage as egocentric as Piaget has claimed ... children are not so limited in ability to reason deductively as Piaget and others have claimed' (Donaldson 1978:58).

Curriculum development - Plowden and beyond

The Plowden Committee applauded the curriculum freedom which teachers had had in increasing measure since the ending of, first, the payment by results system in 1898 and, later, the Elementary Code in 1926. 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' (Plowden 1967:189).

The Committee's thrust in relation to the curriculum is 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. (Plowden 1967:196)
The report's recurring themes are individual learning, flexibility in the curriculum, 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' (Plowden 1967:202).

Have the Plowden Committee's views on the primary curriculum fared any better than its emphasis on Piagetian theory? Certainly almost every document on the primary curriculum published since 1967 (save the so-called 'Black Papers' and their ilk) has echoes of Plowden in it to a greater or lesser extent. A view of the curriculum, for example, talked of 'individual differences and common needs' (HMI 1980:7) and argued that the school curriculum should 'contribute to children's present well-being whatever the age and stage of growth and development they have reached' (HMI 1980:2). It urged that

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. (HMI 1980:8)
However, it is also clear that since Callaghan's Ruskin speech of 1976 political forces have begun to shape curriculum thinking and development. Of the demise of the Central Advisory Councils, for example, Maurice Kogan has written:
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 1987:20)
Notions of core, common and national curriculum all seem to have at their root the idea that, somehow, the child is to be fitted for the service of the state, or at least to fill his allotted role in society. 'The school curriculum is at the heart of education' (DES 1981:1). (Compare Plowden's 'At the heart of the educational process lies the child').
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 1981:1)
'You're just another brick in the wall' (a line from Pink Floyd's 1979 album The Wall) sums up the essence of this approach to curriculum planning and it has little in common with Plowden's humanistic view of what education is about. 'Education is about nurturing the moral, aesthetic and creative aspects in children's development, not about "getting the country somewhere"' (Halsey and Sylva 1987:11).

The writers of the Black papers have criticised much of what the primary schools have done in the last twenty years and blamed the Plowden Report at least in part for what they see as undesirable trends. And Roger Scruton claims that there has been an 'educational decline' in recent years (Scruton 1987:39). He cites three main reasons for this: television, the attitude of parents and 'the rise and triumph of the "educationalists"' (Scruton 1987:40). He criticises the Plowden committee for allowing fashionable ideas to influence their thinking.

However, the assertion that there has been a decline in educational standards does not stand up to critical scrutiny. Indeed, some of the research evidence points in the opposite direction and suggests that standards, especially of literacy and numeracy, have continued to rise steadily. HMI, for example, in their 1978 survey of primary schools, found that 'the results of surveys conducted since 1955 are consistent with gradually improving reading standards of 11 year olds' (HMI 1978:111).

Where criticisms are levelled at schools today it is more likely to be because they have not taken on board the lessons of Plowden rather than the reverse: 'In a majority of primary and middle schools there is over-concentration on practising basic skills in literacy and numeracy without relating them to real situations. ... In about half of all classes much work is too closely directed by the teacher and there is little chance for oral discussion or setting and solving practical problems' (DES 1985:2).

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' (Schools Council 1981:19). 'The curriculum needs to fit the child' (Schools Council 1981:26).

It should also be noted that Plowden warned against excesses. The popular press notion that education was now to be all play and no work was and is 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'. ... 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 1987:120)
The William Tyndale affair gave critics a field day, of course. But a careful reading of the report on the affair shows clearly that it was a case of mismanagement. It is nonsense to suggest, as some have, that this was the inevitable outcome of progressive education policies. It was the outcome of incompetence.

In their commentary on the House of Commons Select Committee Report Achievement in Primary Schools Benford and Ingham conclude that it is a pity that more schools have not acted upon Plowden's suggestions in a thorough and well-prepared way. They argue that if the teaching profession had not been so 'concerned to play safe rather than inspire' we should not now have politicians breathing down our necks:

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. (Benford and Ingham TES 6 March 1987)
A leader in The Times Educational Supplement (6 March 1987) sums 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.' Twenty years on, 'primary teachers are beset by criticism, renewed accusations (unsupported by evidence) of falling standards in basic skills, and calls for a national curriculum and "benchmarks" at 7 and 11.'

In my opinion, the Plowden Report still stands as an invaluable analysis of the needs and possibilities of the primary school.


DES (1981) The School Curriculum London: HMSO

DES (1985) Better Schools: A Summary London: DES

Donaldson M (1978) Children's minds London: Flamingo/Fontana Paperbacks

Hadow (1931) The Primary School Report of the Consultative Committee London: HMSO

Halsey AH and Sylva K (1987) 'Plowden: history and prospect' Oxford Review of Education 13(1) 3-11

HMI (1978) Primary education in England: a survey by HM Inspectors of Schools London: HMSO

HMI (1980) A View of the Curriculum HMI Series: Matters for Discussion No. 11 London: HMSO

Kogan M (1987) 'The Plowden Report Twenty Years on' Oxford Review of Education 13(1) 13-21

Plowden (1967) Children and their Primary Schools Report of the Central Advisory Council for Education (England) London: HMSO

Plowden B (1987) ''Plowden' Twenty Years On' Oxford Review of Education 13(1) 119-124

Schools Council (1981) The practical curriculum (Working Paper No. 70) London: Methuen

Scruton R (1987) 'Expressionist education' Oxford Review of Education 13(1) 39-44

See also

In addition to the articles by Halsey and Sylva, Kogan, Plowden and Scruton listed above, the following pieces also appeared in the Oxford Review of Education Volume 13 Number 1 1987 Special Issue: Plowden Twenty Years On:

George Smith Whatever Happened to Educational Priority Areas?

David Winkley From Condescension to Complexity: post-Plowden schooling in the inner city

Neville Bennett Changing Perspectives on Teaching-learning Processes in the Post-Plowden Era

Maurice Galton Change and Continuity in the Primary School: the research evidence

Philip Gammage Chinese Whispers

Andrew M Wilkinson Aspects of Communication and the Plowden Report

  • This article is a modified version of an essay submitted in March 1987 as part of my Diploma in Education course at the University of London Institute of Education. A shortened version of it was published in Forum 42(3) Autumn 2000 120, and another version can be found on the Infed website.