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The “progressive” teaching ideologues who are failing poorer children, by Toby Young

  • Free school founder and journalist takes on The Blob in new Civitas pamphlet
  • Trendy teaching methods have entrenched inequality and left Britain trailing
  • Every child should have right to be taught “the best that’s been thought and said”

The education establishment is accused of entrenching poverty and protecting privilege in a new Civitas pamphlet by journalist and free school founder Toby Young.

In a withering attack on “The Blob”, he blames the largely left-wing adherents of “progressive” teaching methods for denying underprivileged youngsters the opportunities that their more affluent peers take for granted.

Young, who co-founded the most over-subscribed free school in the country with an unashamedly academic focus, says a “fanatical” belief in child-centred, permissive education has failed less well-off pupils and left Britain trailing in international league tables.

“One of the great ironies of this debate is that nearly all the advocates of progressive education are on the Left, yet the type of approach they recommend as ‘inclusive’ and ‘equitable’ has ended up entrenching poverty and preserving privilege,” he writes.

“The reason for this is obvious: if children are learning very little at school, those from under-privileged homes are never going to be able to compete with those from more affluent backgrounds when it comes to securing places at good universities and footholds in lucrative careers.”

Citing a 2011 report by The Sutton Trust showing that the gap in academic attainment between rich children and poor children was higher in Britain than in any other developed country apart from America, he adds: “We don’t have to look far to find evidence of the link between The Blob’s educational philosophy and inequality.”

The Blob is the name given by reformers, including the Education Secretary Michael Gove, to those ranged against any departure from the child-centred methods that took root in state education in the 1960s. It includes teaching union leaders, local authority officials, academic experts and university education departments.

Young sets out the case for a return to explicit academic goals, a strong focus on subject knowledge, order and discipline in the classroom, and frequent tests to evaluate student performance – all outcomes that educationists have shunned in recent decades but are proven to work.

“The countries at the top of the PISA league table are those that still favour the old-fashioned, knowledge-building approach – the teaching method dismissed by progressives as ‘drill and kill’,” Young writes.

“The number one region in the world is Shanghai China, where the child-centred approach is regarded as ludicrously soft.”

In the pamphlet – entitled Prisoners of the Blob: Why most education experts are wrong about nearly everything – Young describes how most evangelists for “progressive” teaching methods do not realise they have fallen prey to a misguided ideology.

“Members of The Blob shouldn’t be thought of as bureaucrats fighting to defend their little patch. Rather, they’re evangelists for a quasi-religious cause, soldiers in a secular crusade that dates back to the Romantic Movement,” he writes.

“Often, they don’t realise they’ve been enlisted in this campaign. They imagine that their educational ideas are just plain common sense, backed up by empirical evidence. ‘Of course it’s a bad idea for children to learn Latin verbs – and here’s the “research” to prove it!’

“In this respect, they’re less like the red blancmange in The Blob and more like the innocent townsfolk who’ve been enslaved by the aliens in Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”

He adds: “For the most part, they are well-intentioned, well-meaning people who share the same goals we do. Like us, they want to devise a public education system that helps all children lead rich and fulfilling lives, no matter what their background.

“They also share our desire to reduce the attainment gap between children from low-income families and their peers. It’s just that they are misguided – imprisoned by a 200-year-old belief system.”

Drawing on a wide range of empirical evidence about teaching outcomes and the latest cognitive science on how children develop critical thinking skills, Young comprehensively demolishes the case for “progressive” education.

He issues an impassioned appeal for all children to receive the kind of education, often called “classical liberal”, that introduces them to “the best that’s been thought and said”. This ideal was the rationale behind universal, free education in the 1950s and underpinned the introduction of comprehensives, described by Harold Wilson as “grammar schools for all”.

“If we want all children to grow to their full stature, not just those lucky enough to attend traditional schools, we need to return to this ideal and reject the Romantic gobbledegook – the progressive snake oil – being pedalled by the prisoners of The Blob,” Young writes.


Prisoner of the Blob: Why education experts are wrong about nearly everything is published today by Civitas: Institute for the Study of Civil Society. A PDF can be accessed below. Hard copies are available on request.

Toby Young is the co-founder of the West London Free School, the first free school to sign a funding agreement with Michael Gove. He is the author of three books, How to Lose Friends and Alienate People(2001), The Sound of No Hands Clapping (2006) and How to Set Up a Free School (2011), and an associate editor of The Spectator. His teaching experience includes working as a teaching fellow at Harvard and a teaching assistant at Cambridge. He is currently a visiting fellow at the University of Buckingham and a Fulbright Commissioner.


Prisoners of The Blob: Why most education experts are wrong about nearly everything

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