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Incisive but uneven in its field of study

SCOTTISH LIFE AND SOCIETY:Education. Edited by Heather Holmes. Tuckwell Press, pound;25

With 25 contributions ranging from the scholarly to the superficial, from the fascinating to the obscure, there is something for everyone to dip into or read more carefully, reports Brian Boyd

A distinctively Scottish curate's egg, this book sets out to provide "an incisive exemplar" of the role of education in social change in Scotland. The 1999 volume, Scottish Education (edited by Tom Bryce and Walter Humes) is acknowledged in the foreword as providing a more comprehensive view, while the explicitly ethnological stance of Education provides a more thematic treatment of events.

The distinction between the books is blurred by the fact that many of the same authors appear in both. Indeed, almost half of the 25 contributors to Education appeared in the earlier publication, often writing on similar themes. Therein lies the first problem, namely, to what extent is the ethnological slant of this book sufficiently distinctive?

The chapters by Walter Humes and Lindsay Paterson, on the governance and traditions of Scottish education respectively, are among the most incisive and analytical. Ted Milburn gives a fascinating account of the growth in importance of informal education, and David Hartley and Angela Rogers, as we have come to expect, place curriculum and assessment in the wider political and economic contexts. However, few of these writers would lay claim to ethnology as their defining field of study.

The unevenness of the book is most apparent in the other contributions, which range from the fascinating to the obscure, from the scholarly to the superficial. Lindy Moore's chapter on "Women in education" is impressive in its scope and erudition, taking the debate on the relative exclusion of women from "mere headcounting" to the exploration and explanation of "underlying causes".

Lawrence Williams's treatment of Scottish literacy provides a detailed analysis - drawing on parish registers of arriages, wills and court proceedings - of the percentage of the population able, at any time since the 16th century, to sign their name. In the course of this chapter, he explores gender issues, the impact of demographic change and the growth of compulsory schooling. The only disappointment is that the account stops at 1900, with only a tantalising reference to the Bullock report and the potential impact of comics, tabloid newspapers and e-mail on 20th century literacy.

The ethnographic approach taken in the chapter on "Elementary institutions" by Catherine and Frank Adams makes extensive use of original sources and allows ordinary people to talk about their personal experiences of "primary" school.

Other chapters make use of direct quotations, from teachers (Pamela Munn on discipline) and even verbatim transcripts of interviews (Lynn Jamieson, "The taught") to good effect, bringing a freshness to themes explored in other places.

However, there are sections of the book, notably those dealing with independent institutions, sport, and society and schooling, which lack the immediacy or the scope of the best offerings. This raises the question of audience: for whom was the book written?

Some chapters are self-consciously scholarly, but the ethnographic approach in many of the others makes this a very readable book, of interest to teachers, other professionals and students of education generally.

With edited volumes of this kind, few readers expect to read every chapter, preferring to dip in and out of selections.

Beautifully presented, the book makes extensive use of photographs, copies of original sources, contemporary cartoons and portraits. Editing such a volume is not easy, and Heather Holmes is to be congratulated for welding such diverse contributions into a coherent publication.

To say that it is a curate's egg is not to be overly critical. Rather, it is an acknowledgement that there is something here for everyone with an interest in Scottish education.

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