Sorting out what matters from the ephemera of a general election campaign is never easy. In this particular one, it is monumentally difficult. The whole thing started off with the trivia of sleaze and internal party bickering. But, even now that these have died down, the quality of debate about policies has been poorer than ever before. But education does matter profoundly in this election. It matters for reasons that barely surface in the party manifestos. Some of the reasons are obvious, but largely ignored or played down by the parties in more than a rhetorical sense - funding, choice, standards and equality of opportunity. Underlying these too, however, are longer-term historical changes which make the parties' statements pale into partisan inadequacy.
The points that stand out in this historical view are expansion and equal opportunity. Expansion has been going on for more than a century. From universal primary education after 1872, there emerged pressure for a universal secondary system, which in Scotland was largely achieved by the 1930s. Then there grew the pressure for a common type of secondary provision, giving us the comprehensive system after 1965; now we have a mass system of higher education (43 per cent of the age-group entering in 1995). Popular pressure for further expansion is one of the reasons why there is a crisis of funding.
At each step in this process, moreover, expansion has disproportionately benefited social groups that were previously disadvantaged. Thus the working class indisputably gained from the development of secondary education from the 1920s onwards, and both they and girls have benefited hugely from the expansion of comprehensive education and (in the 1980s and 1990s) from the expansion of higher education. The whole point of comprehensive education, indeed, has been summed up by Andrew McPherson and Doug Willms of Edinburgh University as "expansion and equalisation".
Expansion has not only been about access, however. Recurrently, it has involved questions of standards and content. Standard grade was one response to the question of what to do with the larger and more socially diverse secondary population brought together by the comprehensives and by the raising of the school leaving age. Another response was the development of a more student-centred type of schooling.
Higher Still is best understood as an attempt to address the same set of problems for later stages. When the Dearing committee reports after the general election, it is bound to have something to say about what should be learnt and taught in the universities and colleges: as in the debate about Standard grade and at many earlier points of reform, Dearing will provoke a discussion about the purposes of education. It is perhaps because no party knows whether it is the real heir to these processes that their legacy is so ambiguous, and the current political debate so lacking in any sense of historical direction. It would not serve the purposes of partisan distinctiveness to admit that all the parties in Scotland have contributed to expansion and to making opportunity more equal, and that all broadly want these trends to continue. It may have been Labour which inaugurated comprehensive education (though ambivalently). But the Conservatives in Scotland were less hostile than in parts of England, and were responsible for many of the earlier and later periods of expansion, notably the development of universal secondary education in the 1920s and 1930s, the full implementation of Standard grade in the 1980s and the expansion of higher education in the 1990s.
In the absence of this broader perspective, the current debate also lacks much attention to what the purposes of expansion may be. In the surface rhetoric, we seem to have a left-of-centre opposition which favours equality over diversity (however much the Blairites might insist otherwise), and a government which tolerates opportunity only if it does not undermine choice. More significant than the apparent difference, however, is that the fact that the debate is happening. It is no accident that one of the few areas of educational policy where real heat is generated is in the debate about choice. The whole point of the last century of expansion has been to promote individual choice, and this has been as true of social democrats as of Michael Forsyth or Margaret Thatcher.
When reformers such as R.H Tawney or William Boyd advocated secondary education for all in the 1920s, they did not want a rigidly collective emancipation. They wanted to promote human individuality, and their hostility to capitalism was because it denied individuality to the working class. The paradox is, of course, that the collective means which have been used to counteract the main sources of social inequality, such as a strong welfare state, have now been brought into question by the very individualism the relative success of these policies has promoted. Put simply: the first children of the welfare state may have been grateful merely to have had access to a better quality of schooling than was available to their parents, but the children (and grandchildren) of that postwar generation now demand far more.
So the debate about choice and diversity should be seen as a consequence of a successful welfare state, not as a sign of its decay. Devolution of managerial responsibilities, parental choice, a greater attention to quality rather than to just the simple fact of education - all these are attempts to respond to a less deferential population. People have become more critical partly because the reformed education system has made them so. If you go through school being treated with respect, then you expect a respect for individual autonomy to be a feature of the society in which you then live. In other words, you expect society - including its education system - to be thoroughly democratic.
None of the party manifestos for education shows much awareness of the significance of what has gone before or of the great questions about how educational expansion can be continued. The Conservatives flaunt their record of expansion without raising the question of what expansion is for. They promote choice without acknowledging that a demand for greater choice has been a consequence of a relatively successful welfare state. The left-of-centre parties - Labour, SNP and Liberal Democrat - have still not reconciled choice with the collective forms of provision and governance which they favour. Real choice requires greater diversity both among schools, and within them in the sense of providing programmes of study which meet the needs of individuals. These parties still seem reluctant to promote diversity as a good in its own right.
People in Scotland favour a public system that promotes equal opportunities and expands to meet popular demand. They also favour choice, diversity, differentiation and accountability. But because of the impoverished character of the present political debate, these two sets of preferences remain acrimoniously at odds. Whether a Scottish parliament would move matters forward remains to be seen.
* Next week: George MacBride on the new government's agenda.
Lindsay Paterson is professor of educational policy at Moray House Institute of Education, Edinburgh.