Back to the future over in Scotland;Another voice;Opinion

5th February 1999 at 00:00
To visit Scottish schools when your background is English is to know how Dr Who felt as a time-traveller. Your train or plane becomes a Tardis transporting you back in time to an education system in which children never stopped chanting their tables and teachers stuck by phonics.

It is even more remarkable to experience an education system where everyone still uses words such as "consensus" and "partnership". The teachers' unions, the local authorities and central government continue to consult each other over policy.

Of course, all things are relative and, now the election campaign for the Scottish Parliament has begun, education is entering choppier waters north of the border. Education will be the biggest element of the devolved Parliament's budget. With foreign affairs and macro-economic policy remaining the remit of Westminster, members of the Scottish Parliament will want to devote large amounts of their energies to schools policy.

The same will be true elsewhere. Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish education will receive top billing in the new devolved assemblies, so teachers should prepare themselves now.

But let's go back to our time machine, for it remains the case that education in Scotland was largely bypassed by the radical change that swept through English schools in the past 20 years or so.

To English ears, it is strange to hear the main political parties arguing there is no need for big policy changes in Scottish education. It is equally strange to know the chief schools inspector for Scotland believes there is not a single "failing" school in Scotland.

Scotland may have been plundered by the English from time to time, but the Office for Standards in Education and Chris Woodhead have never crossed Hadrian's Wall. Scotland's chief inspector may have attracted media coverage for his recent critical comments but he does not feel the need to crusade as his English counterpart does. Quite simply, there is no sense of crisis in Scottish education.

Let's look at some of the differences. There is no OFSTED and no national curriculum, and there are no grammar schools and virtually no grant-maintained schools. The private sector is much smaller. Apart from in Edinburgh, the middle classes have no fear of comprehensive schools. School boards have none of the powers of England's governing bodies.

Yet in other respects Scotland is not so different. In international studies, Scottish pupils' performance in mathematics and science is no better than in England. Attempts at post-16 examination reform keep hitting political obstacles. Teachers' morale is low.

So who has got it right? Were successive education secretaries wrong to unleash a revolution in English schools? Or have Scottish Office ministers been complacent? Why have governments put parents at the centre of English education policy, while producer interests still dominate in Scotland?

Part of the answer lies back in the 1970s when many English schools adapted to post-Plowden versions of child-centred education. Teaching methods changed far less in Scotland. Concentration on the basics remained at the heart of Scottish education.

By the 1980s the two systems were aiming in different directions. So much so that, even today, the Scottish education minister sees no need for a literacy or numeracy hour because Scottish schools never stopped having one.

Most Scots would argue that there is another difference: the cultural value placed on education. Like the Welsh, they respect teachers more highly than the English. Scotland has not felt the need to empower governors to keep an eye on schools.

Also, despite extreme levels of poverty in many parts of Scotland there has never been the same crisis over inner-city schools. That is largely because the middle-classes did not abandon inner-city comprehensives in the way they did in some English cities.

In a recent interview with me in Downing Street, Tony Blair revealed the drive behind New Labour's agenda. Speaking from personal experience in London, he said: "When I look at some of the inner-city schooling, no wonder parents feel they have to move out or feel they have to try and make other arrangements for their children. It is just not acceptable."

When the new Scottish Parliament assembles at Holyrood, and looks around for something to get its teeth into, education will be high on the menu. Much greater interference seems likely. Labour's Scottish education White Paper (in effect the first shot in the manifesto war) has pointed the way forward, proposing to import many "English" policies such as monitoring the performance of teachers and education authorities.

English teachers may get a view of the past when they look at Scotland, but Scottish teachers should look to England. They might get a glimpse of their own future. For all of us it is a wonderful chance to compare and contrast, and ponder which system works best.

Mike Baker is the education correspondent of BBC News

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