Choice can be a bar to progress
iews about choice in Scottish education tend to be rather entrenched, as the argument over history in the past few weeks has shown. According to one point of view, we have the detestable legacy of the Tories and the dismaying threat of Tony Blair's specialist schools in England, both using market-like choice to undermine comprehensive education. To the advocates of markets, in stark contrast, their opponents seem to be drowning creativity in a morass of dull conformity. So when the Scottish Executive's Ambitious, Excellent Schools programme announces "choice" as the third item on its agenda, the discussion around it polarises in ways that are not helpful to moving forward.
In an important and inescapable sense, choice cannot avoid being at the heart of any educational policy today. Despite political myths, promoting freedom from unchosen constraints was one of the founding principles of the welfare state, not a later distortion of its purity.
The popular desire for more choice in public services is a long-term success for state provision. In particular, the much better educated population which has been created by a century of educational expansion now expects much greater discretion than previously, and also much more sincere respect from public functionaries. Seeking freedom is far more fundamental as a human aspiration than a mere preference for markets.
So the question for a democratic education policy is not whether to promote choice but how, and how to ensure that wider choice is consistent with civic decency and not a source of unjustified inequalities. The polarised debate then obscures an awkward paradox: choice may sometimes be most fairly developed by means of temporary compulsion, or at least strong encouragement.
That is most obvious in the very fact of compulsory school attendance. No developed education system has taken seriously the proposition that deschooling society could ever emancipate more than an already privileged minority. Mass, compulsory education, whatever its many faults, has been an absolutely crucial underpinning of mass democracy.
But maybe that is not a very interesting example, because only a few zealots on the far right and left now argue otherwise. Of more practical relevance, consider the effects of raising the leaving age to 16 in 1972-73. It is almost certainly the case that forcing people to stay in school longer encouraged a minority of those who would have left at 15 to choose to stay on beyond 16. The reason this is likely follows from the conclusions of research in the 1980s and 1990s on that group of fourth-year pupils who, because of the accident of their birth date, were compelled to stay on to Christmas of fifth year. These fifth-year "conscripts" were in nearly all respects a representative sample of the age group, because most factors that affect educational outcomes at this age are not correlated with birth date.
The results were therefore more than usually valid, and showed that the mere fact of an accidental extra term of compulsory schooling encouraged some extra students to choose to stay on to the end of fifth year, take some Highers and thus have available to them further choices that they would not otherwise have had.
The raising of the leaving age - and the introduction of comprehensive schooling -also had a further long-term effect on choice by means of a further compulsion. This led to the first proper, official attention to the quality of courses for people not destined to take Highers in fifth year, in the curricular reforms that became Standard grade.
By the 1990s, research showed unambiguously that the quasi-compulsory curriculum in third and fourth year had widened access to breadth of study for social groups which had been denied it in the past, notably working-class children and girls. To some extent, this reform was building on wider social change, especially in connection with girls' rapidly rising aspirations. But the key point was that a more or less compulsory breadth gave pupils choices after age 16 that their predecessors never enjoyed.
That is now being succeeded by further democratisation through further postponing of choice, in those elements of Higher Still that are working reasonably well. Research by David Raffe, Cathy Howieson and Teresa Tinklin at Edinburgh University has found that the curriculum in fifth year is becoming broader, especially for students with at best modest attainment in Standard grade, and especially because of Intermediate courses. They have also found that a very clear majority of teachers in public sector schools and in further education colleges endorse this goal of breadth.
Unlike at Standard grade, this is not compulsory. So we might speculate that the broadening reflects encouragement by teachers, advising their students that foregoing the temptation to choose to specialise prematurely can open up greater opportunity in the future.
If teachers are the source of this advice to students, then that might in turn be because of a quite different way in which provisional compulsion widens choice. Most of them have passed through the Scottish universities, and these still enforce an element of breadth in their undergraduate studies. This may be in urgent need of renovation, but it continues to embody something of the century-old Scottish belief that the exercise of professional autonomy requires a prior grounding in broad intellectual study, a sacrifice of curricular choice in the long-term interests of being able to exercise professional choice.
These examples suggest that the debate around choice should become subtler.
We need to ask what core knowledge as well as core skills an effective democratic citizen needs in Scotland today: what cultural literacy a democracy should expect its young citizens to acquire. That would include not only ideas about democracy itself, but all the scientific, literary, artistic and social knowledge that gives people the capacity to understand what is happening to them and their society.
Not to ensure that young people acquire such knowledge would restrict their later choices as individuals. It would also stifle the collective choices available to Scottish democracy itself.
Lindsay Paterson is professor of educational policy at Edinburgh University.