David Bell uses an English perspective to question the myth of a golden age. As Scottish education celebrates the 500th anniversary of the 1496 Act and, coincidentally, the 300th anniversary of the 1696 Act for Settling of Schools, it will be a time to highlight the continuing traditions of a system which had its roots in the principle of education for all. Observers from south of the border might be tempted to think that there will be more than just a little myth-making in this celebration.
After all, the Scots have emphasised the distinctiveness of their education system. By implication, the English system is seen in a distinctly unfavourable light.
Undoubtedly, the 1496 Act was a significant development. It highlighted the importance of schooling at the end of a century that had seen the founding of the three great universities of St Andrews, Glasgow and Aberdeen. By contrast, English education developed over the same period on more highly differentiated lines. Parish priests continued to provide the most elementary education for the poor. However, more significant were the developments initiated by the master craftsmen and the growth of the guild schools. In parallel, many of the famous public schools had their origins around the same time. As time went by, Scotland expanded its provision in parish and burgh schools as well as a number of schools provided by voluntary agencies. In England, development tended to be more piecemeal until the seminal Education Act of 1870.
The twin strands of democracy and vocationalism have been powerful throughout the history of Scottish education. With this has gone a perception that education is given more status in Scotland and that this is reflected in the professional standing of teachers. Perhaps much of this is just myth but there are a number of important strengths which Scottish education exhibits. These are worthy of celebration.
Despite the Government's radical education agenda of the past 17 years, there appears to be a greater consensus about educational reform in Scotland. The cynics might argue that this has more to do with the power of the Educational Institute of Scotland and the unpopularity of the Conservatives than any great communitarian strand in Scottish culture. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle. The size of Scotland can also be seen as a strength as it contributes to the village-like feel of the system. It will, however, be interesting to see the extent to which this continues after the fragmentation of local government reorganisation.
The more consensual approach to curriculum development also stands in contrast to the acrimony that has surrounded English education since the mid-1980s. The role of the Inspectorate has been critical. In England, HMI were seen as part of the problem and the introduction of privatised inspection arrangements under the Office of Standards in Education led to the virtual destruction of HMI as an independent force. In Scotland, HMI appear to have been able to maintain an appropriate balance between inspectorial and developmental work which has allowed inspectors to be seen, individually and collectively, as a powerful force that represents both stability and innovation. Scottish education has been seen as making a contribution to the "common weal".
Interestingly, the Government's approach in England was to see schools as autonomous institutions, responsible for their own salvation. The lukewarm approach to local management in Scotland suggests that there remains a high degree of scepticism about the atomisation of the education service.
It is also interesting to speculate on the extent to which the development of education reflect the conservative outlook of the Scottish people. For example, the 1965 Primary Memorandum was, in its own way, an extremely radical document. To some extent it was mirrored in the 1967 Plowden report on primary education in England. Even though the impact of Plowden was probably exaggerated, it did spawn some excesses which then were used as ammunition against primary educationists in England in the late 1970s and 1980s.
By contrast, HMI reports in Scotland appeared to bemoan the fact that some aspirations of the Memorandum had not been delivered in practice. Coming back to the EIS, one of the union's most successful campaigns was when it argued that many of the 1988 Education Reform Act proposals in England were to be mirrored north of the border and suggested that this was the last thing the Scottish people would want.
But anniversaries are also a time to look forward and Scottish education must avoid wallowing in nostalgia for a golden age. A number of pressing issues need to be addressed. First, there is no room for complacency about the performance of Scottish students. For all its traditions of vocationalism, Scottish education has too many young people leaving at the age of 16 with nothing to show for 11 years of compulsory schooling. The democratic tradition may be alive but too many young people are being excluded from full rights of participation by their background which is then reflected in failure at school. It is also a worrying feature of Scottish education that urban systems continue to see a drift to private education or a bleed to more affluent comprehensive schools in the suburbs.
There is also a need to strike an appropriate balance between wider social policy aspirations and institutional autonomy. For all the well publicised excesses and problems, local management of school has brought a number of significant advantages. Creative energies have been released at school level. Local authorities concentrate on the key issues of supporting school-based improvements in performance and monitoring standards of achievement.
More pointedly, it has broken down the traditional hierarchies which, in the past, had a clear command structure with the chief education officer at the top of the pyramid. Now officers of the local authority (including the CEO) largely rely on the power of persuasion. This is an enormous strength as it allows educationists to focus on common goals.
As international barriers are breaking down and communication technology becomes more sophisticated, there is no place for small-minded insularity. The English system has its weaknesses but it has been too easy to dismiss all its reforms out of hand. Again, this is not to suggest that tried and tested methods should be overturned. Rather, it is a plea for an outward looking mentality, committed to judicious experimentation. Cultural context and traditions are important but they must never be used as an excuse to prevent critical thinking.
So, many a glass will be raised and the occasional dram or two sunk as Scottish education celebrates its long and distinguished history. It is appropriate to conclude with a reference to another aspect of Scottish heritage which is being remembered this year, the anniversary of the death of Robert Burns. Burns was a man who drew his inspiration from the history and culture of the Scottish people but he was also an internationalist in the very best sense of the word. Hackneyed though his words may seem now, Scottish education could do a lot worse than seeing itself as others see it.n Next week: Nigel Lawrie, headteacher of Port Glasgow High.
David Bell is chief education officer with Newcastle City Council. He is a former pupil of Knightswood Secondary School in Glasgow and began his teaching career in that city.
16 H TESaugust 30 1996 Phony outrageobfuscates the facts