Flawed but still a landmark

21st March 1997 at 00:00
Wilson Bain says that despite discordant notes the 1947 report deserves its reputation

One sentence goes to the heart of the famous 1947 report by the Advisory Council on Education: "Our nation is facing for the first time the task of providing general secondary education for all its children." But 50 years on does it deserve the reputation for farsightedness which accompanies virtually every reference to its place in history? Between 1920 and 1961, the Scottish Education Department received advice and reports from the ACE, an independent body of teachers, MPs, councillors, directors of education, college and university staff and "other interests" appointed to a series of councils. Most famous was the sixth council which produced reports on teacher training, citizenship, technical education as well as those on primary and secondary education in 1946 and 1947.

That 1947 report, simply titled Secondary Education, remains a remarkable document. For 40 years, until the Yellow Book, it was Scotland's only national document on the whole of 12-18 schooling. Educationists such as James Scotland, John Young, Walter Humes and John Gray have rarely stinted their accolades, calling the report "outstanding", "a tour de force", "a blueprint for reconstruction", "possibly the most impressive" ever. Commentators say that it anticipated much later developments such as the Munn and Dunning reports. They have usually praised its recommendations on four features of schools, each worth revisiting: comprehensive organisation; a core curriculum for 12 to 16-year-olds; a new school certificate in S4, based on teachers' own assessment; and child-centred teaching methods.

In supporting "omnibus" schools, the report, which was largely written by James Robertson, the secondary subcommittee's chairman, drew upon earlier developments. By 1932, a third of education authorities had some omnibus schools, bringing different "courses" under the same roof. The report called such schools "the natural way for a democracy to organise its post-primary education". However, this support was tempered by other considerations. "Functional" (that is, junior and senior secondary) schools deserved longer to find their feet; in urban areas where few stayed beyond the minimum leaving age (15 from 1947) a dual system of four-year and six-year, "long-course", schools was needed; in rural and Highland areas "we can recommend no uniform pattern". These qualifications and the leaving of ultimate responsibility to local authorities indicate that the 1947 blueprint would not have meant a national comprehensive system.

In any case, how "comprehensive" were omnibus schools? The advisory council rejected a common course, even in S1, and James Robertson later described his report as "tentative" on comprehensive reorganisation. "On the long view, what we teach and how we teach matter more than organisation of the secondary school." The report did recommend a core curriculum for S1-S4, claiming that "in all secondary education from 12 to 16" there is "a unity . . . an identity of need best met by a curriculum broadly uniform in content and purpose". Again it was not straightforward.

The report also took "account of differences in ability . . . nature has decreed and man cannot alter". It is misleading to make statements as if they were "equally applicable to pupils" with different intelligence. So most subjects received distinct advice for A and B pupils, categorised by their IQ rating as "7 per cent and 24 per cent of their age-group". Recommendations about C, D and E pupils were often separate, even including subdivisions such as "abler Cs", "weaker Cs" and the puzzling term "average". "Periphery" (non-core) subjects included not only certain vocational studies but also modern and classical languages, and the "more exacting" aspects of mathematics. "The evidence is conclusive that very many children are incapable of progress" in "austere pursuits" such as French and trigonometry.

The report's views on examinations and certificates have elicited praise over five decades, often contrasted with criticism of SED rejection of those views. The report did condemn external examinations and praised teachers' internal assessment. Yet once more the overall plan was highly complex, and I would argue that the proposals would have increased the significance of external tests, rather than reducing it. The snag was that while the report called such examinations "distorting" and "narrowing", there were "practical difficulties" in replacing them. Would employers, professions and lay opinion accept alternatives to the existing Senior Leaving Certificate? The council thought they would not, if new school certificates were awarded on individual teachers' or HMIs' "subjective judgments".

There was one way forward - scaling, accepting a teacher's rank order for 16-year-old pupils, but giving them an S4 external, national test in each subject and fixing the class's mean mark and spread of marks to fit the external results. Older candidates for a new Higher School Certificate would be externally examined - at 17 for its "subsidiary grade" and 18 for its "principal grade". The 1947 report was recommending a new panoply of external tests at three ages (S4, S5 and S6) instead of existing Lower and Higher grades.

The report is usually regarded as child-centred, largely because it was sympathetic to "experiment in educational methods" and described children as essentially "active, co-operative" but "highly individual . . . with spontaneous interest". The authors also condemned rigid timetables (which they "reluctantly" included in the report) and claimed "the future will be more and more with methods that have the child as their starting point". But only if the child then moved in the right direction. Both the primary and secondary reports advised schools "how to impress traditions" on pupils and "inculcate virtues" such as "willingness to sacrifice leisure in the common service". The secondary school's "supreme function" was helping pupils "progress towards social selfhood by conforming to school rules until they become rationally obedient".

Another discordant note which cuts across child-centred approaches is the palpable anger, largely to do with writing, speech and song. "Many pupils write intolerably badly" because of "sheer carelessness at an irresponsible age". Far from accepting children's talk as personal expression, the report urged a "campaign against speech of the street, the cinema, the illiterate home". Hollywood got a very bad review here.

In short, "unregulated" adolescence was too often "ignoble". That was in addition to pupils' "vexatious limitations": early adolescents "cannot in the strict sense learn history" or discern cause and effect; few have distinct musical or artistic talent; hardly any would ever be able to read Latin or Greek freely.

Yet 50 years on, the report remains highly readable, and the contradictory ideas in its 884 paragraphs are not surprising given the tensions of war, the new (1945) Education Act and the varied influences of past and contemporary educators. It was in turn both hopeful and pessimistic about youth and society. As James Robertson wrote 10 years after publication: "What report does not have its hits and misses?" Wilson Bain is a former member of the educational studies department, Moray House Institute.

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