Review of Laura Tisdall, ‘A Progressive Education? How childhood changed in mid-twentieth-century English and Welsh schools’ (Manchester University Press, 2019)

By Laura Carter //

Laura Tisdall’s recent book is an alternative, perhaps revolutionary, history of progressive education. Progressive education is usually associated with the left, social justice, and social progress. This book argues instead that progressive education in English and Welsh schools was only ever half-implemented, with dismal consequences for the groups for whom it was deemed most suitable.

Above: book cover of A Progressive Education?

Chapter one kicks off this argument by making the case that historians have mistakenly conflated two very different mid-century theories, both labelled as ‘progressive’ education, but which ‘rested on different conceptions of childhood’. Tisdall labels the first one ‘utopian progressive education’, an interwar movement promoted by figures including E.H. Holmes and Bertrand Russell which sought to free children from adult norms and was based on a psychoanalytical framework. This philosophy never much penetrated mainstream English and Welsh education; enthusiasts tended to establish utopian private schools before the Second World War. And so, this iteration of progressivism was largely an early-twentieth century phenomenon bound up with broader strands of utopian thinking that preoccupied factions of the British elite between the wars.

The second type of ‘progressive’ education was very different, and it is with this formulation that we spend most of the book after the first chapter. ‘Non-utopian progressive education’ reached the heart of mainstream educational thinking, first via the 1926 Hadow Report (‘The Education of the Adolescent’) and eventually institutionalised by the welfare state’s ideal of citizenship after 1945. It was labelled ‘child-centred’ because of its foundations in developmental psychology, but, as Tisdall writes, in this dominant idea of progressive education ‘the child was repositioned as a problem that needed to be managed by society’. As a result, ideas of childhood changed for the worse. Much lip service was paid to the agency and individuality of the child between the 1940s and the 1970s, but this book argues that the postwar settlement, via the education system, trapped young people in set of rigid rules which ultimately disempowered and stigmatised those who were not able-bodied, white, male citizens-in-the-making.

Given that it deals with England and Wales, primary and secondary education, and most school subjects, A Progressive Education?covers a huge amount of ground. Here I’ll just comment on two areas of interest to me and to SESC more generally: teachers and the 1950s.


I was especially interested in Tisdall’s argument about teachers, whose role in constructions of childhood stand at the heart of this book. In our project, we’ve shied away from giving them too much of a spotlight in favour of pupils and parents. But this book offers up some genuinely new perspectives on teacher professional identity and self-fashioning that should reinvigorate the literature more broadly. Using self-narratives and oral histories (Tisdall’s own and archived sets), we are presented with a longitudinal comparison of two very different but professionally overlapping cohorts of teachers: those trained before and those trained after the Second World War. After a careful exploration of development psychology’s journey into mainstream teacher training in chapter two, the third chapter shows us how consistently teachers resisted this kind of ‘theory’ in their practice. More important, from the perspective of mid-century teachers, was their ‘craft knowledge’. So, teachers asserted their superior understanding of what ‘normal’ children looked like, often in conflict with the demands put upon them by the ‘progressive’ or ‘airy fairy’ methods of ‘child-centred’ education.

The result is not a triumphalist account of being a teacher in England and Wales in the mid-century, but it is a sympathetic one. It reveals the ways in which teachers sought to assimilate multiple sources of expertise and instruction into their everyday practices including their training, HMI advice, classroom dynamics, and even their own experiences as parents. This makes for a refreshing change from politically-charged accounts which posit teachers vs. Tories or teachers vs. pupils. As Tisdall herself points out in her chapter on the 1970s ‘backlash’ against ‘progressive’ education, the language of left vs. right is stunningly unhelpful for understanding teachers’ views. Plus ça change. Instead, she deploys the method of reading the ‘cultural scripts’ used by teachers, such as the idea that ‘children themselves did not enjoy child-centred methods’, situating these alongside subjective teacher selfhoods and social and cultural contexts.


As a project SESC is keen on decentring educational structures in favour of generations and experiences in the history of education. So, a second, quite compelling argument woven into the logic of A Progressive Education? for us is that the 1950s is the key turning point in twentieth-century education (usually overlooked in favour of the Second World War and the Butler Act of 1944 or comprehensivisation in the 1960s and 1970s). In showing that child-centred, ‘progressive’ education was rigid, hyper-normative, and badly misunderstood in practice, the book also shows that the tripartite system and ‘progressivism’ were allied causes. In turn we see, especially through the brilliant school Logbook evidence presented in chapter four, how important the 1950s were for entrenching fixed, pupil-type models that the grammar/secondary modern divide relied upon. It was in the latter schools where child-centred methods became legitimised. As Tisdall states quite plainly at the close of chapter six, this was a legacy that the secondary moderns passed onto the comprehensives. In my own forthcoming book, I have found similar continuities when applied to the context of history teaching: ‘ordinary’ pupils were constructed, pedagogically speaking, between the 1930s and the 1950s. The comprehensive schools that became the status quo of mass education in the decades that followed marked the completion of a process, as much as they did a new beginning. 

I thought the fifth and sixth chapters of A Progressive Education? felt a little overburdened by a desire to cover every base in postwar education: class, gender, race, region, giftedness, and disability. Whilst it is clear that Tisdall’s unpacking of ‘progressive’ education has implications for all these topics, her core argument in relation to childhood lost focus in this attempt to cast such an exhaustive net. One could follow up the logic of Tisdall’s argument with a book-length topic on each one of these groups. Still, the attempt at an intersectional synthesis here remains important. By chapter seven we are absolutely clear on who lost out most as a result of the messy, mid-century ascendency of ‘child-centred’ education: working-class kids and girls, and more especially within these groups, immigrant children and those with special educational needs. The architects of ‘progressive’ education did not intend to disproportionately burden these already marginalised groups, but A Progressive Education? is bitter tale of the unintended consequences of when theory and policy migrate into experience and practice. It’s also one of the best histories of education I have read in a long time.


‘A Progressive Education? How childhood changed in mid-twentieth-century English and Welsh schools’ by Laura Tisdall is published by Manchester University Press.

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