How progressive was the progressive movement?

Now that’s a massive question, and not one that I can even attempt to answer in a short blog post!  But, having recently run a teaching session for the IOE’s own students, as well as a reminscence session with adult learners, we’ve realised just how wide an appeal this subject has, and how much it gets people talking. So, as I’ve just completed the cataloguing of the Plowden Committee papers, I thought a blog post was required.

The Plowden Committee was established in 1963 to consider ‘primary education in all its aspects and the transition to secondary school’, largely in response to the move towards comprehensive education which saw the removal of the 11+ in many areas and opened new opportunities for the provision of different forms of primary education. It was the first full-scale review of primary education since the publication of the final Hadow Report 30 years earlier and the committee reported in 1967.

The archive comprises Lady Plowden’s own papers from the Committee’s deliberations, as well as a small amount of material dating from after the report was published. The collection is an excellent resource that can be used alongside the report itself (available in the library) and the numerous articles and books written since its publication.

‘The records of the Committee’, I will admit, sounds a bit, well, dry. But if you delve into the boxes the informational value of the collection is huge. It would be a fantastic resource for anyone interested in not just progressive education, but also some very ‘unprogressive’ education provision too.

As a snapshot here are some research areas the collection could support:

  • physical and emotional development of children (particularly puberty)
  • summer babies and their educational development
  • age at which the transfer from primary to secondary education should take place
  • internal management of schools in the 1960s (there are reports of visits to schools, correspondence from those working in education, as well as the evidence the Committee heard from a wide range of organisations from the NUT to the National Farmers’ Union)
  • curriculum, assessment, streaming and examinations
  • class size and school facilities
  • teacher training & professionalism including initial & inservice training, and the probationary year
  • school funding
  • special educational needs

There are also many examples of progressive education in practice including photographs and children’s work such as this which made me smile…

Pupils from Fleet Primary School rate their favourite lessons

Pupils from Fleet Primary School rate their favourite lessons


The Committee itself included a number of well-known educationists of the time including John Newsom, as well as schools’ Inspectors, teachers and Mrs Bannister, described as a ‘housewife and parent’. All had their own opinions on education, and the contents of the report, a snapshot of which is captured in the correspondence.

Letter from Sir John Newsam to Lady Plowden

Letter from Sir John Newsam to Lady Plowden

As the collection contains such a variation of papers on a whole range of subjects I made a very detailed list of the contents of each folder. The full catalogue is here and you can limit your search to the collection by going to the Advanced Search on the Archive Catalogue and adding ‘PL’ to the RefNo field.


Letter from a teacher at John B Lang School USA to Lady Plowden (PL/14/6)

If you’re interested in using this, or any other archive collection, you can email us at Or, if you’re onsite, come to the Archive Reading Room (just behind the photocopiers in the library).

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