Psychologist Voice 1

Dr Pam Jarvis – Chartered Psychologist, Researcher and Author

Dr Pam Jarvis is a researcher, author and Chartered Psychologist with a PhD in Education. Until October 2019 she was Reader in Childhood and Education at Leeds Trinity University, where she remains as Honorary Research Fellow. She continues to work on research, publications and training initiatives.

Why are you interested in progressive education?

It’s an area that I have been interested in since my own children were very young. I studied for my first degree in psychology when they were in nursery (starting in 1989) and I learned about learning through play initially in being a helper in that environment, while at the same time I was learning about developmental psychology. It was a good combination. I have been involved in a lot of what might be termed progressive education, with respect to all age groups in the 30 years since then. I wrote a potted history here:

Community Education is Dead – But it was a Lifeline, by Dr Pam Jarvis

In your opinion what are the main challenges of our current school system?

It depends what age group you are talking about. I think the ‘knowledge curriculum’ strait-jackets older children. Of course, they need to be taught about human culture and knowledge up to this point, but they need time to play with and reflect upon what they are learning in order to make it their own.

Teaching and learning should be a mixture of information provision and working through the ideas, discovering how things ‘work’, not programming children with information and using memorisation techniques to make sure that they can regurgitate it for fixed question assessments.

I taught psychology, sociology, child development and a little history to 16-21 year olds across my whole nearly 30 year career and a key issue I would raise is that when I started, young people expected education to be a process of discovery, with input from teachers and independent exploration. As we moved through the 00s this changed; they constructed education more as a process of being given answers by teachers and then having to regurgitate these for very narrowly framed assessments.

One A level exam paper I remember from the late 00s had a question structure whereby the students could get A’s by writing a practice essay over and over again, getting teacher feedback on each successive version and then, having learned it by heart, regurgitate it pretty much word for word in the exam. As highlighted in my blog [see link to blog at bottom of page], students are currently taught prefabricated analyses for texts in English – the teacher in the online lesson who says ‘the thing here is to test that what you’re getting is what I’m getting’. They have to, because that is the only interpretation that will get marked ‘right’ in the assessment.

I have found that indoctrinating children to this mode of ‘teaching’ and ‘learning’ creates two different type of reactions, neither of which are conducive to good mental health. There are students who are terrified of ‘getting it wrong’ so constantly asking teachers for highly directive feedback – they are too scared to try things out and discover – and there are students who just give up because they have no opportunity for original interpretation. The latter are often highly creative young people who could go on to become innovators and leaders, given the right guidance and opportunities, but there is no ‘room’ for them in a transmit and test teaching and learning process.

Sometimes (and I found particularly in males) this latter orientation also creates anger. Both responses are pernicious to mental health. I do think, however that the issues in education are part of a neoliberal process, more of an emergent symptom than a simple cause, and that we shouldn’t ignore the ‘bigger picture’. Obviously, pandemic is an additional stressor now. But I wrote about the various components as I saw them here, some time ago:

Right Here, Right Now (July 2016), by Dr Pam Jarvis

With regard to younger children (under seven) there is a very significant ‘too much too soon’ problem. This is further outlined in these articles I wrote for TES:

Five Questions We Need to Ask About EYFS [Early Years Foundation Stage] (July 2019), by Dr Pam Jarvis

School Reopenings Should Kickstart an EYFS Fightback (May 2020), by Pam Jarvis

What are state schools doing well?

I think most teachers do their best in the situation in which they are placed. Having started my teaching career in Community Education, I taught in Further Education and school between 1994 and 2007, before moving on to teaching and researching in university full time, and I certainly remember doing this. But all too often, they do this despite the curriculum rather than because of it. 

If you could make changes to the state education system, what would be your top priorities?

  • To loosen the curriculum so that teachers had more time for children to explore the material they are working with at any given time.
  • To reshape Initial Teacher Education (ITE) so teachers are ready for the challenge of teaching like this (it’s often harder than rote/memorisation teaching, but much more fun).
  • To change the formal school starting age to 7, with play-based learning 3-6 and 6-7 as a transition year.
  • To remove statutory assessments for individual children from primary school and to evaluate school success by inspecting an anonymised cross section of children’s work and teachers’ planning, in a system that was set up to support teacher Continuing Professional Development (CPD) rather than to terrorise them.
  • To create a complete overhaul of 14-18 education, with a view to lessening disaffection and mental health problems amongst this age group. A wide group of people, both teachers, parents and the young people themselves to be genuinely drawn into the consultation.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

I think the most important message can be delivered in just one word: ‘chill’. To teachers, parents and pupils. But the whole culture of the UK and the US seems to mitigate against this, unfortunately.

Further Articles by Dr Pam Jarvis

Free to Learn (June 2020), by Dr Pam Jarvis

Shall We Dance? (March 2017), by Dr Pam Jarvis

Why story-based playtime is vital to child development (August 2019), by Dr Pam Jarvis [Link to full article here]

Follow Dr Pam Jarvis

Blog – The Psychological Historian

Twitter –

Books by Dr Pam Jarvis

Dr Jarvis has authored many books. Here is just a selection:

Perspectives on Play: Learning for Life

Early Years Pioneers in Context

The Complete Companion for Teaching and Leading Practice in the Early Years

She is also publishing her first novel chapter by chapter on a blog site which you can read (and comment on) here: