Henry Hepburn

Scottish schools ain’t what they used to be – brutal

Those who talk of the ‘golden days’ of Scottish education forget just how far we’ve come since then, says Henry Hepburn

Scottish schools used to be brutal

There is a trope about Scottish education that I hear just about every time I speak to educators in England. In its most concentrated version, it goes something like this: “It used to be the envy of the world – not any more, though.”

Versions of it popped up repeatedly when I was in London last week. The basis of such observations is a perceived fall in academic standards, which suggests that, for all the claims that schools’ priorities are much broader these days, traditional measures of success still trump all other concerns.

Let’s set to one side the extent to which academic standards in Scotland have declined or otherwise – it’s a question of critical importance, but it’s been discussed endlessly of late. And the frenzied attention given to research like the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) and cobbled-together school league tables obscures huge strides made by Scottish education in other areas.

And let’s be frank: you don’t have to rewind too far to find a schools system that brutalised many in its care. If you ask someone who went to school as recently as the 1980s for a symbol of their education in Scotland, there’s a good chance they will cite the tawse. This peculiarly Scottish tool – a leather strap with flaying fringes, designed to inflict pain and humiliation – symbolised a permanent, looming sense of threat that afflicted countless Scottish childhoods.

When people hark back to a golden era of Scottish educational standards, whether or not we buy into that, we must not erase memories of the often vicious system within which these standards were achieved. To forget it would be like vaunting Hollywood’s mid-20th century golden era while airbrushing out the industry’s hideously abusive treatment of women or senator Joseph McCarthy’s witch-hunts that derailed many a film career.

In an article for Tes Scotland in 2017, Andrew Campbell wrote about the campaign in the 1970s and 1980s led by his mother, Grace Campbell, to end corporal punishment in British schools. At that time, he recalled, it was “ingrained in teaching”, and newly qualified teachers were “inculcated into using physical punishment as part of their classroom routine”.

One imagines that Grace Campbell would have found it hard to see Scottish education as a sphere where people aspired to show love to children. Yet, in the long-awaited Care Review last week, the word “love” cropped up time and again, as a reminder that this is the key ingredient for humane and functioning children’s services.

No doubt, she would also have been taken aback to hear Professor Rowena Arshad, in a recent Tes Scotland podcast, say that the best thing about Scottish education is its “passion for social justice and fairness and human rights and humanity”, or that MSPs voted last October to ban the smacking of children by anyone in Scotland.

And, being well used to tales of struggling children being beaten for getting their spelling or sums wrong – before being turfed out of school at the earliest opportunity – Grace Campbell might have been surprised by the huge strides in attainment over the past decade among pupils from some of the most deprived backgrounds, or to see staying on at school to the end of S6 becoming the norm.

Let’s not forget that campaigners against seclusion and restraint, such as Beth Morrison, warn that violence against pupils has not been eradicated. However, neither should we underplay last week’s Care Review, which stated that Scotland aims to be “the best place in the world to grow up” by showing children that they are “loved, safe and respected”. The fact that schools now aspire to be havens of empathy – rather than fulcrums of state-sanctioned brutality – shows how far we have come.


This article originally appeared in the 14 February 2020 issue under the headline “Scottish schools ain't what they used to be – places of brutality" 

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