Divided by the border?;Opinion

20th August 1999 at 01:00
Edinburgh and Whitehall will continue to find that two different systems can have much in common, says Willis Pickard

WHAT WAS it like in the old days before devolution? The current issue of the erudite Scottish Historical Review shows how education policies used to be linked across the border.

The reforming Liberal government of 1906 introduced a Bill to make school meals available to the needy. The following year legislation provided for medical inspections in schools. Neither measure applied to Scotland.

But the 1908 Education (Scotland) Act brought in both school meals and medical inspections and was more thoroughgoing. As John Stewart, of Oxford Brookes University, writes in his research article: "Within a remarkably short time Scotland moved from a situation of exclusion to one of being in advance of the rest of the United Kingdom."

The story does not end there. Just before war broke out in 1914 English reformers, spurred by Scottish example, extended the scope of the 1906 Act. In other words, there was almost a decade of legislative leap-frogging in which one country's experience became the model for the other.

What will happen now that we have legislative devolution? Will there be similar borrowings? Will officials in the Scottish Executive still keep more than half an eye on what is happening in Whitehall, or will the systems increasingly diverge - and if that happens, will there be loss to one or the other?

Politically, the power of example is ready to be exploited. MSPs are likely to ban fox hunting before Westminster comes to a decision. The anti-hunting lobby is bound to use the Scottish lead to influence opinion in the south.

In education, there was traditionally a view that Scotland should not get far out of the Westminster line. That was working practice for officials, who kept in close touch with opposite numbers in Whitehall. Margaret Thatcher made ideological uniformity an obsession. She could not understand Scottish reluctance to embrace her education programme. So we got opting-out legislation which virtually no one wanted. Scottish Office ministers had a hard fight to prevent the schools inspectorate being semi-privatised like OFSTED.

MSPs will inevitably resist any attempt to copy English measures. At least for the first few years the autonomy of the Holyrood Parliament will be at stake. But will that bring creeping isolationism? If English education latches on to necessary reform - a modern equivalent of school meals and medical inspections - what chance is there of Scotland following suit?

It took only two years for the Scottish Secretary to act in Edwardian times. The Scottish Executive aims to be open and receptive. Will its antennae pick up signals from the south? Or will there be an assumption that Scottish education has nothing to learn from outside?

The issue is unlikely to be provision for needy children. But it might be about school standards. More rides politically on raising achievement in England than here. If there are successful initiatives and innovations, or admonitions and sanctions, will the messages penetrate north?

There are pressures for conformity, particularly those emanating from the Treasury, from Labour's national programme (for example, on class sizes and pre-school provision) and from non-devolved areas such as the New Deal. There is also now a greater likelihood of English interests paying attention to Scottish example.

The creation of the Holyrood Parliament has made Scottish distinctiveness more natural from a southern viewpoint. Differences are actively looked for. That is clear in the pre-school world. The three-to-five guidelines produced by the Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum are the envy of nursery educators south of the border, who prefer the Scottish play-based philosophy to the get-ready-for-the-three-Rs approach of the Department for Education and Employment.

It would be a paradox if greater English receptiveness to Scottish practice was accompanied by a new blindness here. This is not an area where John Reid as Secretary of State will be a counterweight to Donald Dewar and the Executive. Aside from Treasury-led initiatives like the New Deal, he will have no involvement in education. But the Scottish MPs at Westminster, while not interfering with English measures, would find it a profitable use of their ample time to look for good practices worth exporting north.

None of this is to deny the benefits of devolution. The Education Bill to be debated in the autumn will gain from the glare of publicity instead of being consigned to obscurity at Westminster. If the Executive's aspirations are realised non-MSPs will help determine its shape. And if it takes Scottish schools down a different path from those in the south, so be it.

But a small country must cast wide for its ideas as well as its trading markets. Ninety years ago the MP who led the campaign against Scotland joining its neighbour in making compulsory provision of school meals and medical checks was Sir Henry Craik.

Despite having previously been the civil servant who ran Scottish education, Craik believed that there were enough philanthropists laying on school meals for the state to stay clear. It was a naive belief in his country's superiority over the English.

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