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Bravehearts versus the philistines

The curriculum council mistrusted its culture review group and detested its report, says Robbie Robertson

The Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum, in rejecting its review group's report on the place of Scottish culture in education, has inadvertently released a whirl of ideas. Some directly concern the case and the council's competence. Others, broader, concern the control of education and its debates and hence, ultimately, the control of culture.

Sitting in a trench with media flak flying is no place for academic contemplation. This is, therefore, an account of the case from only one set of perspectives.

In the eight brief months (two of them July and August) the review group was given to reach its conclusions on a set of highly sensitive issues it consulted widely. To inform its deliberations, it already had the results of an elaborate survey of Scottish opinion strongly supportive of the presence of Scottish culture in the curriculum.

It met with curricular experts from Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, with members of the profession in Scotland, and with others. It met nobody innately hostile to an enhanced Scottish cultural presence in Scottish schools. The review group then reached its own conclusions confident that they articulated the moderate, balanced views of a majority of the Scottish people and pointed to a modest but credible way forward.

The operation was small-scale but relatively expensive. It took only 12 meetings, some of them two-day events, to write the report and address the council's perplexing reservations. The cost was perhaps Pounds 40-Pounds 50,000, payable not only by the curriculum council but by the employers of 17 group members who were released to work towards the report. All this effort has now been cast aside by a council diktat the group finds mysterious and poorly justified. Most important of all, the Scottish people have been denied access to opinions for which they paid, and will not be able to express their views on them.

Why was the report axed? The widely reported explanation by the Scottish CCC's chief executive is that the council felt a broader statement on the curriculum was needed in the wider context of pupils' learning experiences, set within a wider vision for the future of education in a Scotland on the eve of its new parliament, with our report in some hazy way contributing to an even hazier process. The grandiosity of the rent-a-cliche language reveals an obvious flimflam disguising the real opinions of a body which, despite its designation Scottish, seems deeply suspicious of Scottish culture and its value for the curriculum. But, recognising the potential unpopularity of such beliefs, it finds them unsayable.

We know, for example, that the council was nervous about any discussion of national identity, disliked the status given in the report to the Scots language, and felt that Scottish culture in the curriculum needed no enlargement. Some Scottish CCC officers, and perhaps council members, had little confidence in the review from its outset. Any future, "wider" statement is, therefore, likely to contain no more than a parade of those platitudes by which real debate about our culture is muffled, controlled and then conveniently ignored. Practice in such manoeuvres has been acquired over centuries.

Nothing adds up. No answers have been given. Exactly why was our report judged unsuitable for consultation? Why was it thought that this consultation would not have been useful in laying a foundation for the future work now being touted? Why did the council consider, at a time of straitened resources, further expense on Scottish culture justifiable when it already had an expensive report ready to roll?

Why, if it felt the need for additional statements on, say, learning, did it not approach the group already in place, involved in many different forms of teaching, which had educated itself about very difficult matters over previous months and was certainly well able to undertake the task?

No such hint, no such offer, of any future involvement was contained in the chairman's letter which informed us only of the decision to reject the report and gave us the kiss-off in the easy terms of bureaucratic process. It was all casual policy-making taken at an amble with a cheap facade to hide a bog. The council almost certainly mistrusted the group, detested its report, and wanted rid of both.

We have no reason to believe that the decision was shaped by political pressure or any from within the Scottish Office. The decision was the council's alone. We do not believe that all members of the council share a common set of beliefs about Scottish culture and its place in the curriculum. We do believe, however, that some form of ideological motivation, or of political calculation, lies at the heart of the decision. All members of the council are responsible for that decision and their motivations are for each to say.

This unpleasant clamour is doing nobody a service, certainly not our report, certainly not the Scottish CCC, certainly not the people's right to know. With news of the report's rejection on the front pages but the warplanes still in their hangars, I wrote to the chairman in personal terms expressing a view that talk was needed, copying my letter to the chief executive. On the following day I tried to telephone the vice-chairman hoping to explore options. A week later their silence is absolute. Testosterone rules OK. More blood will flow before some uneasy future peace.

In the history of stupid human conflicts, it was ever thus.

Robbie Robertson is a former assistant director of the Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum and was co-ordinator of the Scottish culture and curriculum review. He wrote the first draft of the review group's report and was responsible for editing others.

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