A marriage made in politics

30th August 1996 at 01:00
Are there 500 years of state education? Yes and no. Our series on the opposite page makes large assumptions. There were schools in plenty before 1496. Some of them still exist and they, or their proximate successors, celebrate multiple centenaries from time to time.

Ecclesiastical foundations or town schools must have been training priests and civic officials from the moment when abbeys and burghs were founded. The question is the point at which the state began to take an interest in ensuring a corpus of literate manpower. The impetus was advancement of good government (cf the Government's present-day training targets), not a dispassionate belief in the importance of learning.

James IV was as near a Renaissance monarch as far-flung Scotland was likely to get. He saw a civilised future for his kingdom at the corner of Christendom. His sense of military strategy was eventually to let him down on the fields of north Northumbria, but he recognised the need for education among opinion-formers and military leaders. Hence his far-sighted injunction through Parliament that ABC1s should educate their sons, "until they be competently founded and have perfect Latin". As Donald Withrington pointed out last week, realpolitik dictated policy. The king was looking for a military and civilian cadre, not for ivory-tower scholars.

It is strange that the history of higher education in Scotland is better documented than that of school years. Chroniclers spout about the bonfires and flowing wine that accompanied reception of the anti-papal bull authorising creation of a campus in St Andrews. More precisely, it was an anti-anti-pope in Peniscola who backed Scotland's first university. (The Highlands and Islands University has only to keep on the right side of Michael Forsyth at Victoria Quay.)

The significance of the 1496 Act and the attempts for several hundred years thereafter to reinforce state interest in schools lay in a realisation that education was important not only for saving souls and for allowing Scots to hold their heads high in Paris and Prague and other university centres but also for the health of the body politic. Success of the system lay in combining the state's interests with those of ambitious individuals who needed to learn how to write sermons, draft writs and measure land.

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