Is Progressive Education Really… Progressive? By Max Hope

I like words. I think about words. I dream about words. I sometimes wake up with words, sentences and paragraphs in my head. Words explain a thousand pictures. For me, anyway.

I am looking at a new website – a fabulous website – progressive I love this website. It contains so many rich ideas, lots of resources, it is imbued with energy. The largest words that we see on the homepage are: “creating a world where education has the best interests of the child at heart.” Simple, clear, passionate, inspiring.

But something is bothering me.

Why is this a progressive idea? What does ‘progressive’ mean when we use it in the context of education?

If I asked a hundred people what ‘progressive education’ meant, I wonder what they would say? I might do this one day. The website identifies fifteen ways in which education might be re-imagined, including: prioritising play; practicing democracy; reducing school/class sizes; valuing creativity; having mixed-age groups; promoting mental health; raising the school starting age. All good stuff. I don’t disagree with any of it. I have spent the last ten years of my professional life fighting for this, researching these practices, writing about them.

My question, though, is whether these count as progressive.

The Cambridge Dictionary tells us that “Progressive ideas or systems are new and modern, encouraging change in society or in the way that things are done.” My stumbling block, when we talk about ‘progressive education’, is whether these ideas are new or modern.

Progressive education, and progressivism, has a long history. John Dewey (1859-1952), frequently cited as one of the early proponents of progressive education opened his ‘laboratory school’ in 1894, an experimental model where his philosophical ideas about living in democratic community and about offering child-centred experiential learning could be implemented and researched. But he was not the first or only person to have such radical and counter-cultural ideas. The germs of child-centred practices can be traced as far back as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who argued, in 1762, that “you should be well aware that it is rarely up to you to suggest to him [her/them] what he [she/they] ought to learn. It is up to him [her/them] to desire it, to seek it, to find it.” Other philosophers, thinkers and educators, including Johann Pestalozzi (1746-1827), Friedrich Froebel (1782-1852), Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), Maria Montessori (1870-1952) Susan Isaacs (1885-1948) and Marjory Allen (1897-1976) can also been credited with influencing progressive ideas. So progressive education is over 100 years old, over 200 years old. How can we argue that this is new? It is not as new as having a National Curriculum, as standardised testing, as Ofsted. It is not as new as SATS tests, or as inclusion units. It is not as new as children’s rights. It is not even as new as the concept of having free, universal education for all.

And yet there is something about the word ‘progressive’ that does feel right. Progressive education has been under attack for many years. Dewey’s laboratory school was criticised for failing to put theory into practice. Summerhill School was nearly shut down after a negative Ofsted inspection which claimed that children were not ‘learning’ because they were not in classrooms. The National Curriculum and Ofsted were created, in part, as a response to the increasing popularity of ‘child-centred’ practices in schools in the 1970s. Progressive education does still feel radical. It does still feel like the kind of educational reform that many of us have been fighting for, across years and decades and generations.

Robert Peal published a popular and yet horrifying book, Progressively Worse in 2014, in which he entitled one chapter ‘How Freedom to Learn Became Freedom to Fail’. This book, which describes itself as ‘subversive’ and is a damning attack on all things progressive, argues that ‘progressive education is as close as one can get to the root cause of educational failure in Britain’. He outlines the case for returning authority to teachers, reducing freedom for students, and tightening up discipline. This would be less frightening if Robert Peal wasn’t also a TeachFirst ambassador and Deputy Head of West London Free School, one of the Coalition Government’s flagship free schools.

Meanwhile, in a galaxy far, far away from the West London Free School, there are some new, modern, innovative and forward-thinking practices developing in education. In homes and community centres, in huts and in forests, in yurts and in church halls – and yes, in mainstream schools – there are new versions of Dewey’s experimental schools being developed. These new settings, such as the Awen Project in Wales, the Cabin in Hertfordshire, Agora School in the Netherlands, the New School in London and Room 13 in Scotland, are learning through experience, through using theory and research, through using intuition and instinct and tremendous skill. These settings, and the people within them, are our new progressives.

Words are important. Words are powerful. The words that we use can inspire and hurt and explain and diminish. Words matter.

By blaming progressive education for educational failure, Robert Peal is using a clever trick. He is claiming that he, and his contemporaries, are the revolutionaries, that they are the ones who are creating radical change. He is claiming the future.

Words are important. I like words.

I want to claim and reclaim the word ‘progressive’. I want progressive to mean radical and revolutionary. I want progressive educators to be the subversives. I want to shine light on our current-day pioneers, our own progressives. I want us to stake our claim on the future. I want us to believe that what we have is new, and modern, and innovative. I want us to continue the legacy that was started centuries ago, the legacy that believed that children matter, and where we are “creating a world where education has the best interests of the child at heart.”

What we have, as progressive educators, is progressive.

Let’s define, and refine, and redefine the word. Words matter.

Max Hope

Max (she/her) is an independent scholar, a facilitator, and educator, a researcher, an activist and a writer. She is Director of Rewilding Education, a social enterprise that aims to inspire radical changes in education, schooling and learning by creating and promoting healthier, fairer and wilder ways of educating. Her latest book, Reclaiming Freedom in Education, was published by Routledge in 2019. She is the Chair of Trustees at Phoenix Education. For more info, go to


Progressive Education website. Accessed 05/10/20

Peal, R, (2014). Progressively Worse: the burden of bad ideas in British schools. London, Civitas.

Rousseau, J.-J. (1979). Emile; or On Education (A. Bloom,Trans.). New York: Basic Books. (Original work published 1762)