Progressive Education, Shared Values, Play and Dirt…

Sir Ken Robinson’s award-winning work on creativity in education makes him a natural advocate for our movement. His belief that outdoor play and its benefits are “vital for education” and “vital for our families” resonates with our belief that playful children grow into great people. –

“Dirt is Good”

Pashi Sahlberg writes:

When I look around the world, I see competition, choice, and measuring of students and teachers as the main means to improve education.

This market-based global movement he calls ‘GERM’: the global education reform movement. Yet Sahlberg seems to overlook how the market is involving itself in subtle and not so subtle ways in education. When he says that:

Better education for all our children is not going to be a result of… managing education system (sic) like businesses. What we need now instead is to have schools where curiosity, engagement and talent can be truly discovered and nurtured… 

he doesn’t realise that business is already ahead of the curve, his ‘progressive’ agenda is theirs. It is not just education systems that are being managed like businesses, it is the art of education itself and it is the philosophy of ‘progress’ that is, arguably, the main driver for this. Ford Motor Company is imploring us to ‘Unlearn’. Lego want to ‘open our minds’ to “critical knowledge on play, creativity and learning.” Sky want us to believe in the ‘power of TV’. Persil prefers the narrative of ‘Dirt is Good’. As David Arkwright (founding partner of global brand-development agency MEAT and the former global brand director for Unilever’s laundry business, author of The Making of Dirt is Good.) puts it: “Great brands and brand stories play to a deep desire or resolve a deep tension.”

He continues:

We located this tension as the counterpointing of disciplinarian parenting versus the universal aspiration for a more libertarian parenting style in the spirit of transgenerational progress. Everyone seeks to feel they are somehow more progressive than the preceding generation. We had found our great point of resolution. The story would start to unfold.

It is no accident that Persil has brought in Sir Ken Robinson, to chair the brand’s Dirt is Good Child Development Advisory Board with Dr Stuart Brown, the founder of the National Institute of Play to “investigate methods of play that best help children learn and develop.” Here Sir Ken is telling the TES that: “I think it’s important that we look again at the importance of play-based learning – there’s a long history of research to show that play is not a waste of time, it is not time that is badly spent. Play, among human beings, has very important social benefits.”

The article reports that:

The report Play in Balance, commissioned by Persil, polled 12,000 parents worldwide. In the UK, 75 per cent of parents said their child preferred to play virtual sports games on a screen rather than real sports outside.

Over at the Sky Academy they: ‘believe in potential’, they want to use ‘the power of TV, creativity and sport, to build skills and experience to unlock potential in young people’.

Over at Microsoft they are launching an education edition of Minecraft According to Anthony Salcito, Microsoft’s vice-president of worldwide education: “Teachers are using Minecraft to do so many things, including teaching maths, science, religion and poetry…”

Might Salcito want our kids to stay inside whilst Robinson wants them outside? Lego want you to play with real bricks instead of virtual ones, Sky want you to watch TV… and Ford really want you to play with cars…

Ford want us to try “parking what we know and take a fresh look at familiar and finding new ways to make progress… open minds… because when we ‘unlearn’ we let go of what we know and that’s when we go further” you can see the ad, sorry, manifesto here. They say that: “This progressive thinking is reflected…” in their latest vehicle line up, meanwhile Fauja Singh runs through Greenwich Park ‘unlearning’ what it is to be an OAP.

As David Arkwright might put it a story is starting to unfold, it is the story of global brands tapping into the progressive education discourse and using it, emotionally, to firstly sell product and secondly to campaign for libertarian parenting and play based learning by letting go of what we know, opening our minds to creativity, playing outside and not on computers, or playing inside on computers or with bricks (though you could do this outside, it won’t involve kids getting dirty enough for Persil’s needs) or driving cars, when you leave school. And Ford isn’t boring any more.

I remember the Daz adverts with Danny Baker, we now have Ken Robinson metaphorically knocking on our doors and opening our minds to play Persil based whiter than white wash.

Maybe all this is an example of what is called ‘Shared Value‘, originally launched by the Clinton Global Initiative, they say: “Business is at its best when it helps people and profits, this is shared value, for example if a business provides medicine and health care education to rural areas without access it creates both healthy communities and a healthy customer base…”

Global companies helping our children, the healthy customer base for the future… This is progress.

In his book ‘More Human,’ David Cameron’s one time guru, Steve Hilton, writes that: “Media companies like News Corporation, Pearson, Disney, McGraw-Hill and Houghton-Mifflin Harcourt (some of which already own school textbook publishers) are pushing into education technology systems as a new sales and marketing strategy: a way to get as many eyeballs as possible on their products.” For Hilton this influx will be supporting the factory school model and the ‘depressing bureaucracy’. He cites a Pearson report ‘Preparing for a Renaissance in Assessment’ in which it says:

Without such a systematic, data-driven approach to instruction, teaching remains an imprecise and somewhat idiosyncratic process that is too dependent on the personal intuition and competence of individual teachers.

Hilton goes on to say that this is an approach which sees tests as the solution and teachers as the problem. His solution is to offer more choice in the school system, human scaled schools breaking the monopoly of local bureaucracies. His libertarian view is one I have a lot of sympathy for but I don’t think Governments will let go of testing regimes easily, in fact the data will provide a compelling narrative for competing ‘shared-value’ companies and systems. Whether it is the narrative of play based learning or, what Hilton and, interestingly, Ken Robinson call the ‘factory school’ it seems that global big businesses from Lego to Pearson from Persil to News Corp feel there is a worthwhile narrative in  education to sweep us all into the arms of their ‘products’.

Are all those on the left who extol the work of Ken Robinson happy with him cavorting with Unilever? Dirt is Good…

Peter Hitchens, writing in the Daily Mail, has begun to mourn (as a Conservative should) for the old days: “I do begin to feel I was fooled into thinking that what was coming next would be any better. At this rate it may soon be much, much worse…” and that he: “…fell for the great Thatcher-Reagan promise….I believed all that stuff about privatisation and free trade and the unrestrained market.”

How many articles will be written in the next thirty years bemoaning how we gave up our education system to the ‘shared-value’ market?

If we put all the above together what might the system look like? At one level it will be centralised and at another it will be choice driven. It will dispense with teachers because they are too idiosyncratic. It will become more standardised, computer play will be one way through as will play based learning at earlier ages. There will be online personalised routes, ones that will either look like minecraft or are textbook-lite; algorithms will point the child in the direction to go: where and when. There will be outside time when children will get dirty, and indoor time with bricks. They will be ‘unlearning’ and letting go of the past, whilst looking to ‘create’. There will be a plethora of online standardised tests run by Pearson et al which will allow data comparison across borders, and this will be realtime data, broken down into age, gender, geography, poverty etc. Some of this will be home learning through computers and/or in institutions policed by ‘teachers’. Films, TV shows and other products will be used to excite and deliver narrative to children as will games, robots and virtual reality.

One thing is clear, the institution that we currently know as ‘the school’ will, if all this comes to pass, be ‘progressive’ – the emotional tales of free children running, jumping, smiling, (at least in virtual reality) responding to progressive laissez faire parenting, whilst Government outsource centralised testing and learning modules to global companies. The unrestrained ‘shared-value’ market.

The ‘traditional’ model is quite tame in comparison. Institutionally based, with teachers at the centre, teaching children in their ‘idiosyncratic’ and flawed ways.

How old-fashioned, how unprogressive…


23 thoughts on “Progressive Education, Shared Values, Play and Dirt…

  1. Martin, thank you for bringing the Persil campaign to my attention (and Ken Robinson’s alarming role in it). The ad ( is a powerful piece of storytelling and quite disturbing in how it links imprisonment with children not playing outside. But it is equally disturbing that this is all in the name of simply selling washing powder, especially as (very untypically) almost all of the prisoners in the ad are white-skinned and even their prison clothes are an untypical near-white that carefully show the cleansing effects of Persil! But I don’t see such marketing campaigns as attempts by the multinationals to steal the clothing of progressive education. These campaigns come and go. Much more insidious is the growing alliance between the ‘new philanthropists’ such as Gates and Zuckerberg, reactionary big businesses such as Wallmart, and edubusiness giants, who share the aim of overturning all ideas of education for the common good, i.e. the basis of progressive education. These new philanthropists are not promoting a brand, they’re promoting an ideology.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Blimey, the progressive conspiracy of ignoring the obvious supremecy of traditional teaching and the peddling of worthless damaging play related learning for small children is much wider that I ever realised.
    It is scandalous to suggest that on average children play outside less than prison inmates. Unless of course it is true, when maybe it is not so scandalous.
    With incompetent parents, irresponsbile governments and positively morally bankrupt global businesses what hope is there.
    What we need is a few traditional teachers to take responsibility for parenting all of the world’s children, to run the Governments of all of the world’s nations and to take the helm at all global corporations including those with and interest in education.

    And you try telling the kids of today that, and they won’t believe you.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This is great stuff – watching you squirm ‘Brian’ because Martin has uncovered the rather unsavoury side of one of the high priests of the current progressive movement. Do you want to comment on why he has chosen to do this? Or make an actual point relating to the points made by Martin in this post?

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Hi Martin, let me clear I have no problem with shinning a light into the grubby exploitative world of big business and education. For a while now multi-national conglomerates has been turning their greedy little eyes on schools and searching for ways to shake them down. Through lobbying politicians, funding political parties, and slithering their way into the department for education they used whatever influence they can to open up the system to exploitation. But, and this is where I get annoyed with your blog, this has nothing to do with the great traditionalism v progressivism debate. That’s about education, it’s about curriculum, and practice, the stuff of being in a classroom and teaching kids. All multi-national businesses care about is money. They’re not interested in play-based learning v direct instruction, group work v whole class, or any of the other minutia of pedagogical practice. All they want is money, that’s all they want. And while I applaud your efforts to draw our attention to the different ways this is happening, I’m deflated by the way you attach this to a particular form of ideology. I’m deflated because I know how some in our tiny hot house community will leap on this as proof of how decadent and evil progressivism, play-based learning, and technology is. Your blog has unnecessarily poured oil on the flames and that makes me depressed. Which is a shame because you know how much I admire your work.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s not me who attached this to a ‘particular form of ideology’. Also, you seem to ignore that the blog mentions how business is involving itself through GERM and ‘factory schools’…


  4. I didn’t ignore it. My point is about how your blog widens the divide, rather than closes it. I don’t see why you would do that? Business on both sides of the debate are exploiting education, and big business is only interested in profit.


  5. Sort of. I’m glad you shone a light on what I see as the grubby self-interest of big business, but I wish you hadn’t welded on the legitimate and principled debate inside education about how best to teach kids. That was unnecessary and only (as I said) pours oil on the fire.


  6. The appropriation of free play as a marketing strategy by Unilever bothers me greatly. I wrote about it here: Thank you for widening the issue to neo-liberalism and education in general and the supposed Trad / Prog divide (I am an experiential educator who values knowledge, reading and debate so not sure which camp that puts me in). I haven’t had time to read through your other posts yet but am interested in how you think acadamisation and the privatisation of local authority services for schools, fits in with the picture you paint above. The same obsession with future profit over education is at play I think.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Interesting blog Martin.

    Taking a break from sticking pins in my Policy Exchange voodoo doll, I thought I’d share my Ken Robinson story.

    When I was a civil servant at DFE in the curriculum division, I was called into a very senior office and handed a poisoned chalice. That chalice was Ken Robinson. Essentially, he’d managed to speak to Blunkett at some time previously (the senior bod believed ” it was on a train, for God’s sake”), and convinced Blunkett to establish a group to look at improving creativity in education. Blunkett had finally passed this down to his officials with the order that something should be done.

    That something, it turned out, was me.

    Unusually for a senior civil servant, the chap in question was very direct with his instructions. I was to give Ken every assistance in ensuring that he felt supported and listened to. But there were to be no concrete outcomes of this committee. No consequences. No changes of any substance. It was to be a hand-holding exercise which left everyone feeling warm and friendly, and that was it.

    I asked whether this might not upset Blunkett, given that Robinson was his friend and he’d issued the order to do something. The withering response was that this instruction was direct from Blunkett. Ken represented a body of opinion which he wanted to keep onside, but without actually doing anything different (Gove’s Godfather, Adonis, was already dictating most education policy from No 10 at this point).

    And so the National Advisory Committee on Creative and Cultural Education was born (known universally within the department as “Knacker”). Ken assembled a whole range of celebs, including Dawn French (who brought free chocolate oranges), Lenny Henry, Jude Kelly and Mick Hucknall (who seemed to initially think it was a group about reducing taxes on popstars, and then stopped coming); plus a smattering of intellects like Susan Greenfield and Harry Kroto. All chaired by Ken.

    They sat round big tables and had important discussions about creativity in education. They visited schools and drafted reports and case studies. Some of the members were less enthusiastic and regular than others, but Ken was truly driven and incredibly productive. I found his enthusiasm infectious, and without doubt some of the issues covered were very interesting. A [very long] report took shape. Ken would draft recommendations which would require real action, and I would redraft them under the beady gaze of my seniors, to try and make them seem as if there would be action, without actually requiring anyone to do anything.

    If you’ve read my other pieces about this time, you’ll know that I was a pretty terrible civil servant – I didn’t like delivering policy which was clearly ineffective or aided corruption (like the forerunners to MATs: Education Action Zones), and I didn’t like misleading genuine people with deliberate deceptions. I was fairly uncomfortable with my role as the smiling face of official indifference. It also became clear to me that Ken thought that he was in a Yes Minister sketch, where the cunning civil servants were preventing him from delivering what the Minister really wanted. Instead it was the reverse – I rather liked what he was doing, but he was mistaking politicians’ warm words for reality. Not the first or the last person to do that, I guess.

    I had one go at telling him he was being duped. We were in the ministerial waiting room before he went in to see Blunkett, and I told him pretty much outright that the New Labour model of managing the civil service didn’t allow for civil servants to exercise their own discretion, and that the attitude to his committee and his report was being dictated from the very top. I don’t think he believed me.

    Anyway, the report was produced. You can still find it online, and I have a copy on my bookshelves. I can’t recall exactly, but I think it was published quietly, with hardly any publicity, at a weekend (possibly even a Bank Holiday weekend), when the department still buries the announcements it doesn’t want coverage for. The true irrelevance of the whole exercise was revealed when the lead responsibility for the “recommendations” in the report was shifted out of DFE to DCMS. No clearer indication could have been given that Ken’s “creativity” was seen as an irrelevant add-on, than being relegated to the “Ministry For Fun”.

    I’m not sure why I felt the need to share that. Maybe it’s that I’m just tired of poking the Policy Exchange wasps’ nest over their forced privatisation of all schools. Maybe it’s that I find it laughable that some still claim “progressives” somehow control education, when I saw the demonised high priest of progressivism being brutally excluded nearly twenty years ago. Maybe it’s just because I feel bad for what happened to Ken, who was a nice guy (talked too much, like all scousers, though), and while I think your article is fine and fair, I find some of the hostility directed towards Ken to be a bit overdone.

    Anyway, keep banging your drum. Always a pleasure to read the blogs.

    Liked by 4 people

  8. The world is changing and everyone has to accept that happens. Today’s youth will one day look back and say things were better when they were kids – that’s the way it is and always has been. What’s tragic is the lack of any control or influence the “experts” (by which I mean the informed, the experienced, those in the field) have over the way things are changing, including you Martin. And even if you had just a tiny grain of power or singificant voice in all the noise, you still couldn’t do anything or be heard above the pounding racket of the corporations, toxifying everything with their noise. Sad thing is, it’s their children too.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. As ever, Martin makes a very good case. I’m just not sure what the case is. Is it that business is meddling in education? That is not new, neither for progressive teaching (which I assume means not traditional) not for traditional teaching (which I assume means standard teaching). Just ask HoDs whose budgets are mostly taken up by paying through the nose for ready-made worksheets, revision guides (I believe these days they’re known as knowledge organisers) and tests. From this perspective, Tim makes a good point: how is this related to the largely-imaginary-outside-of-twitter trad vs prog debate?

    Is it that influential thinkers are hired to, ahem, influence?I thought that was your job too, Martin, isn’t it? Or is it now wrong that people who are deemed to be experts by others are employed by them? Or is it just when they employ the wrong experts?

    Or is it that companies are trying to sell their products? I know, how very dare they?

    I may have misunderstood you blog. If you are saying that we need to be wary of big business’s intervention in education. Then yes, I agree wholeheartedly. Teachers need to be well informed and have their bullshit-o-meter on. Of course Persil won’t save our children. That’s just daft. However, if you are saying that there is some sort of progressive illuminati controlling education policy, I think you’re either grasping at straws or a misunderstood (by me) genius. One or the other. There’s a dichotomy worth entertaining for you 😉

    Whatever the case, you always make me think. And for that, I thank you 🙂


  10. Do you mean by “largely-imaginary-outside-of-twitter trad vs prog debate” what Tim calls the: “the great traditionalism v progressivism debate” and: ” the legitimate and principled debate inside education about how best to teach kids.” ?


    1. Seriously though. Of course the “legitimate an principled debate inside education about how best to teach kids” is important. The utility of framing that debate in progressive vs traditional terms is also debatable. Or is it not?

      Besides. I’m still none-the-wiser as to what the point of this blog is. Is it a general moan? 🙂


    2. It is possible it is both great/principled/legitimate and largely unknown outside ed-twitter. I think the debate is all those things and you both play an important and significant role. What grinds my gears is when the debate jumps tracks into irrelevance or (and not that you’re guilty of this Martin) polemics.

      Liked by 1 person

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