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Child-centred education and concepts of childhood in post-war English and Welsh primary schools

Recorded on 21 January 2021

Speaker: Laura Tisdall (Newcastle University) and  William Reese (University of Wisconsin-Madison)

‘Child-centred’, or ‘progressive’, pedagogy dominated English and Welsh primary schools in the decades following the Second World War, drawing from developmental psychology to establish a new set of expectations for a normal childhood. While child-centred educationalists intended this model to give children greater freedom in the classroom by fitting education more closely to their needs and wants, it had unintended consequences when put into practice by primary teachers. The white, able-bodied male child was the invisible norm in post-war schools, so children who did not fit this mould were especially likely to fall foul of child-centred ideas. However, this paper will contend that even relatively privileged children might struggle to meet teachers’ expectations due to the contradictions inherent in child-centred conceptions of childhood. This pedagogical programme, I suggest, would ultimately prove inadequate for the radical project of ‘setting the child free’.

Laura Tisdall is a NUAcT/Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at Newcastle University. Her book A Progressive Education? How Childhood Changed in Mid-Twentieth-Century English and Welsh Schools was published by Manchester University Press in 2019. Her new research project considers how British children and adolescents imagined adulthood and their own adult futures from c. 1950 to the present day.

IHR Seminar Series: History of Education