Scots have quietly had their own way

Margaret Clark

Few people in England seem to realise just how different education in Scotland is from that in England and Wales - nor that the gap is widening.

Quite wrongly, the terms "British" or even "English" are frequently used to include Scotland, and generalisations are often made about education in the United Kingdom which do not apply in Scotland.

The recent referendum seems to have created a temporary interest in Scottish affairs south of the border. But even so, few seem to realise that education will be among the powers delegated to the new parliament. Currently, there are separate Acts of parliament for much of Scottish education, which is administered from the Scottish Office in Edinburgh, not the Department for Education and Employment in London.

As a Scot working in England since 1979 who has continued to keep in touch with developments in Scotland, I have been able to compare what is happening north and south of the border through official documents and through the pages of The Times Educational Supplement Scotland (yes, there is one).

But had I relied on mainstream television and radio, the daily papers and their education sections and even The TES itself, I am sorry to say that I too might have believed that the previous government's "reforms" are also in force north of the border.

It may be news to many that the national curriculum with its key stages and tests does not apply in Scotland; nor are there league tables for primary schools. Indeed, perhaps two of the most striking differences in our National Guidelines 5-14 are the close involvement of teachers, lecturers and advisers in their development, and the fact that there has been a conscious attempt to build on, rather than overturn, the developments of the 1960s - blamed in England for so many of our current ills.

Comprehensive education is alive and well in Scotland, and few schools have sought to opt out - much to the consternation of the previous government. Some 96 per cent of Scottish children attend local authority schools, most of the remaining 4 per cent being at independent schools. But in England, one in five secondary pupils was being educated in a grant-maintained school by 1996. OFSTED has no jurisdiction over Scotland, which remains a Woodhead-free zone. HMIs remain responsible for school inspection.

Interest in the Scottish experience emerges sporadically; for example, only recently has there been any recognition of the existence of a General Teaching Council in Scotland, even though it was established as long ago as 1965. All teachers must register with it if they wish to teach in the state schools, as must lecturers in colleges of education.

The fact that the council does not depend on government funding may have been important for its independence - even its survival. The council works in collaboration with The Scottish Office in many ways, including the approval of courses of initial teacher education.

It has often been suggested that teachers, and education in general, are held in higher esteem in Scotland. If this is true, the GTC may be due some credit. And surely lessons might be learned from the way it has operated for more than 30 years.

Frustratingly, many of the publications seen by overseas readers also give the impression that there is such a thing as "English" education, covering the whole of the UK. In spite of that, in some countries educationists are keen to learn from and about Scotland. Colleagues who recently visited me from New Zealand were far more aware of the differences between English and Scottish education than are many English educators.

The Scots are not complacent about their educational standards; since 1981, a national sample of pupils has been monitored in English language, maths and science through the Assessment of Achievement Programme. Literacy and numeracy are high on the agenda, but compulsory "hours" are not being imposed on primary schools, as they are south of the border.

Scotland has managed, quietly and virtually unnoticed, to retain its distinctive education system relatively unscathed. I think it is highly significant that the recent referendum showed a majority, not only in the country as a whole, but in each of the individual councils in favour of a Scottish parliament. In my view, this vote was at least partly fuelled By fears that Scottish education might not survive another Conservative government at Westminster.

Register to continue reading for free

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you

Latest stories