Bring back the spirit of 1947

21st February 1997 at 00:00
Malcolm MacKenzie welcomes a revived Advisory Council

The White Paper on Raising the Standard has produced varied reactions. At question time following a paper on spirituality in education delivered at St Andrew's College by Professor John Haldane of St Andrews University, the first questioner claimed the contents of the White Paper had had an effect on him that was almost emetic. He did not put it quite like that but this is a polite journal.

The main ground of his complaint, so far as one can gather, is that Government policy is narrowly focused on the material, the immediate and the pragmatic, ignoring "the person", the spiritual dimension of life and lacking long-term vision. There is plenty of scope for debate about that but a discussion about the need for vision draws the attention, at least of those of us with a sense of the history of Scottish education, to the final section of the White Paper, which indicates the Government's intention to reconstitute the Advisory Council on Education in Scotland.

Now some people might argue that Scottish education needs another advisory body as much as we all need a hole in the head. We are inundated with advisory bodies. Members of the "leadership class" and the "policy community" spend vast amounts of time serving on them. Classroom teachers' lives are dominated by endless recommendations which many practitioners perceive as the main source of stress in their lives.

The White Paper itself provides a list of standing bodies from which the Government receives "expert educational advice", such as the Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum and the Scottish Council for Educational Technology. And, of course, the structure of advice keeps changing; witness the new Scottish Qualifications Authority. So who needs an advisory council?

The White Paper argues the need to involve in the advisory process "people not directly involved with education on a day-to-day basis". This may reflect the New Right's distrust of provider self-interest in public services. It refers with approval to the work of the Scottish Economic Council which, it claims, has brought to the Government's attention a "wide range of views relevant to Scotland's economic performance and circumstances". A similar forum, it argues, is needed in education to provide a focus for public debate.

The proposal to revive the Advisory Council should be strongly welcomed. To understand why, a little history is in order. It will be noted that the Government does not require new statutory powers to set up the council. These already exist in terms of Section 71 of the Education (Scotland) Act 1980. That Act, however, merely re-enacted legislative provisions first introduced in the Education (Scotland) Act 1918. Between the wars and, above all, during and immediately after the Second World War, the Advisory Council was of immense significance, producing a series of memorable reports. In my opinion the council's 1947 report on secondary education was the most impressive document produced on education in Scotland since Knox's First Book of Discipline in 1561.

The council ceased to exist de facto in 1961 but not de jure since the legislative power to call it into being remained. However, following the creation of the Scottish Consultative Committee (later Council) on the Curriculum in 1965 it was not felt necessary, until now, to reconstitute the Advisory Council.

Some powerful arguments in favour of the Advisory Council are not advanced in the White Paper and which might not appeal to governments of whatever political hue. In their classic study, Governing Education: A Sociology of Policy since the War, McPherson and Raab claim that the policy process in the 1960s "replaced a potentially synoptic Advisory Council with a segmented array of bodies, each with a restricted remit, co-ordinated mainly through the Inspectorate". In other words, divide and rule.

The most persuasive argument in favour of reviving the Advisory Council is the need for a body to take a broad, long-term view of the relationship between education and society, if necessary adopting a stance uncongenial to the government of the day. At times the old Advisory Council, not least under the influence of its most distinguished chairman, Sir James Robertson, did precisely that, often leading to its advice being ignored. The present Government is seeking to pre-empt such a development by insisting that the new council will be chaired by the Minister for Education.

The Government has also indicated that it will, at least initially, seek advice from the council on the structure of the teaching profession, links between education, training, business and industry, and resource allocation among various sectors of education. These are important and weighty matters. Yet there are others on which an informed synoptic view leading to an equally informed public debate are urgently needed. My friend, the interlocutor of Professor Haldane, should note that the 1947 report, Secondary Education, was replete with references to spirituality. Reacting to the Holocaust it stressed "the sacredness and abiding significance of the individual" and emphasised the need "to promote the growth of free and rational beings, of spiritual personalities". It saw the education system as fostering Christian Democracy.

The importance of spirituality has re-emerged in educational thought, not least in work on educational management, for example in the writings of Terence Deal. Spokespersons for all the political parties are stressing the importance of citizenship amid growing concern about the emergence of an alienated underclass, the demotivation of boys, indiscipline and health.

We are moving to the start of a new millennium in which work will be characterised by insecurity and short-term contracts. The nature and purpose of our institutions is in question, not least that of our universities. The dramatic fall in the birth rate has raised questions still to be addressed never mind answered. A synoptic, critical and visionary perspective on education and society is as badly needed now as it was during the war. The return of the Advisory Council is both welcome and overdue.

Malcolm MacKenzie is a senior lecturer in education at Glasgow University. He is a representative of the Scottish universities on the General Teaching Council for Scotland and a director of the Scottish Further Education Unit. He is a former member of the Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum and a vice-chairman of the Scottish Tory Reform Group.

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