One of the welcome features of recent years has been the steady rise in the number of well-researched books explaining and analysing various aspects of educational provision. What has been lacking until now, however, is a short introductory text giving an overview of the system as a whole. The last such text was Leslie Hunter's excellent study, The Scottish Educational System, the first edition of which was published almost 30 years ago.
A new book edited by Margaret Clark and Pamela Munn seeks to fill this gap. It will be of particular use to undergraduate students and to readers from England and overseas who are keen to understand the distinctive character of Scottish education. Throughout the volume, important points of comparison and contrast with education elsewhere in the UK are made.
The subtitle of the book is "Policy and practice from pre-school to secondary", indicating that its coverage is not fully comprehensive. The focus is on schooling: further, higher and community education are not included, though there is a chapter on teacher training. In giving a clear, succinct account of the stages of primary and secondary schooling, the legislative framework within which schools operate, the programme of reforms to which they have been subject and the effect on pupil learning, the book is successful.
The contributors are well placed to offer authoritative comment on their respective fields. Thus Joyce Watt on pre-school, Margaret Clark on primary education, Alison Closs on special education and Pamela Munn on standards and quality, all provide informed, accessible accounts. Inevitably, much of this is at a simple, descriptive level. The volume is not, however, purely descriptive. In some of the chapters, important questions of analysis and interpretation are raised. David Raffe, dealing with post-compulsory schooling, examines "the deep-rooted conservatism of Scottish secondary education" and Scotland's response to the pressures of expansion and the problem of academic-vocational status is contrasted with other European countries.
Brian Boyd, in his chapter on the statutory years of secondary schooling, introduces challenging questions about the "fragmentation of the curriculum in S1 and S2", "the need for a radical review of the management structure of schools" and even the continuing viability of "the monolithic all-through, six-year school, organised on age-stage lines". It is with Lindsay Paterson's chapter on policy-making that the book really moves up a conceptual gear. Drawing on his earlier text, The Autonomy of Modern Scotland, Paterson places recent developments in the context of the country's peculiar constitutional position within the UK. He examines the tensions between Scottish and UK policy-making during the Thatcher and post-Thatcher years and looks at the way in which political power is exercised in order to manage consent within the Scottish policy community. Scotland, he argues, despite the tensions, has succeeded in maintaining, and indeed strengthening, its sense of identity by redefining its nationalistic aspirations.
The likely effect of a Scottish parliament is taken up by Pamela Munn in the final chapter, where she considers two scenarios. One is an upsurge of "civic activism" which would challenge the "democratic deficit" inherent in the use of patronage to control the traditional policy process. The other is the "strengthening of the central Scottish state" at the expense of local civic bodies, a process which, it might be claimed, has already begun following the restructuring of local government.
Scottish education needs to be understood in relation to these broader cultural and political questions, not just in terms of the institutions which formally constitute the system. Cameron Harrison, writing about the Scottishness of the curriculum, quotes T C Smout's telling observation: "If there are in this country too many people who fear what is new, believe the difficult to be impossible, draw back from responsibility, and afford established authority and tradition an exaggerated respect we can reasonably look for an explanation in the institutions that moulded them".
Scottish education also needs to be understood in relation to other aspects of social policy. In the opening chapter Margaret Clark cites disturbing statistics about levels of poverty and their effect on children's schooling. This issue has been overshadowed by the heavy concentration in recent years on the institutional factors which influence school effectiveness and school improvement. It needs to be reinstated at the centre of educational debate.
Walter Humes is director of professional studies at St Andrew's College.