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Keeping the debate on track

Education has been a talking point in politics since Comenius but all the musing this year should focus on the key issue of discipline, says Ian Morris.

Cathy Jamieson, the Education Minister, has initiated a national debate on education which will consult widely and not just with the usual suspects. The time-scale is from March to July for the first part, and reflection and writing for the second part until the end of the year.

The leaders of the debate, the writer of the report and how contact will be made with the masses is not known. There may be much written material, which could be summarised subjectively. But is quality or quantity more important? In spoken material, how will it be collected?

The first rule in surveys is: do not collect any data until you know what you are going to do with them. The second is: do not extrapolate and generalise your conclusions unless you can be precise about the subjects (people) you have used.

HM Inspectorate accepts these rules (see its latest Standards and Quality report) and resolves the problem by using performance indicators. This is really painting by numbers, based on the lowest common denominator and useful where the teaching staff is of low quality. It is unnecessary where there are highly qualified teachers as in Scotland.

Our education system in Scotland and in much of Europe owes its pattern to the 17th century and especially to Comenius. Parliament invited him to England as the first educational consultant, fees unknown, to speak about his writings, mainly The Great Didactic and Orbis Pictus (the World in Pictures). The latter was used in schools for two centuries. Our textbooks merely look that age.

His ideas of grammar (by which he meant Latin), advising on effective methods of instruction, content and then using that content to reach pansophia (all knowledge) within a structure of four blocks of six years - infancy, childhood, boyhood and youth - is similar to our pattern today. His village vernacular school was Knox's "school in every parish"; he advocated selection by merit for the youth phase. By the end of this phase people were fit to continue their own lifelong learning. Comenius insisted that education was a right, as does Jack McConnell.

John Milton, PRO for Oliver Cromwell, was greatly impressed and promulgated these ideas, which continued through Adam Smith, Robert Owen, BellLancaster and David Livingstone, with religious and humanist strains. A common feature was that all overestimated the potential of pupils. Milton advocated learning Latin in the lunch hour. It should ease playground supervision.

Our national debate will end at Christmas when the energies of all politicians will be absorbed in working for next year's election. The debate may just be an intellectual indulgence for the chattering classes. If the minister intends to make a mark, it can only be on one aspect. Make it discipline, which is a huge problem. Lower the compulsory school attendance age to 14, which eliminates the S1-S2 problem. Insist that education is a privilege as well as a right. It cannot be spread over the pupil's head like Marmite but must be earned by effort. This resolves the exclusion problem and avoids sin bins. Inclusion and compulsion are poor bedfellows.

Postwar, the film strip was to revolutionise education, then the film, then television, then computer-assisted learning. Infuriatingly, however, education is achieved by effort not by technology - no matter how slick.

Ian Morris is a former chief inspector who headed the Scottish Education Department's research and intelligence unit.

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