Getting to grips with the system

2nd September 2005 at 01:00
A lack of deference when reporting is an effective way of preventing those in charge of education policy from turning complacent, says Walter Humes

The 1960s constituted a significant decade in terms of re-shaping the institutional structure of Scottish education. Three major bodies which continue to have an important role to play have their origins then.

The General Teaching Council (GTC) was established by act of parliament in 1965. In the same year, the Consultative Committee on the Curriculum was set up. Following various reconstitutions and merger with the Scottish Council for Educational Technology, this subsequently became Learning and Teaching Scotland (LTS).

The Scottish Qualifications Authority has its roots in the creation of the Scottish Certificate of Education Examination Board in 1963, albeit with an extended remit following merger with the Scottish Technical and Vocational Education Council.

For many teachers, these facts about the structure of Scottish education are rather boring. They tend to feel that organisations such as the GTC, LTS and SQA are remote from their daily work as classroom teachers.

By contrast, I have always taken the view that it is necessary for teachers to be well informed about the governance of the system if they are to have any chance of influencing the policies which affect their professional lives. That need is greater than ever, as new policy initiatives descend on schools and local authorities with increasing rapidity.

I started writing for The TESS in the 1970s whilst still a young teacher of English, and the main focus of my contributions ever since has been on the administration and management of Scottish education. There was never any shortage of things on which to comment - the Munn, Dunning and Pack reports of 1977, the reorganisation of local government in 1975 and again in 1996, the role of the inspectorate, the influence of the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland, and the leadership of the many politicians who held the education portfolio at the Scottish Office over the years.

I soon formed the view that official accounts of how Scottish education operated - as represented by government reports and inspectorate documents - were seriously deficient in certain respects. This was partly because they were often bland and dull, and failed to address what I saw as the key issues.

But a more serious reason was the complacent account they generally offered of the functioning of the system. There was no recognition of the way in which those bureaucratic structures which were intended to improve educational provision might develop self-interested agendas running counter to the public interest.

And there was certainly no questioning of the stewardship of those individuals who held senior office in the principal educational bodies. The TESS became an important arena in which some of these issues could be raised. In addition to well-informed news reports about what was happening in Scottish education, it became a forum for a lively exchange of views by people working in various parts of the system.

My own thinking was influenced by many of these contributions, not necessarily because I agreed with them but often because they gave insights into areas that I did not have direct access to. People such as Gordon Kirk, then principal of Moray House, Bill Gatherer, chief educational adviser to Lothian Region, and Tony Worthington (who became a Labour MP) wrote for The TESS on topics that helped me crystallise my interpretation of how the Scottish educational system was managed and controlled.

In 1986 I published my first book, The Leadership Class in Scottish Education, and extracts from it appeared in these columns. It led to many invitations to speak but also helped to ensure that my career entered a static phase for the next eight years.

However, along with the publication two years later of McPherson and Raab's monumental study, Governing Education, the scene was set for a more questioning approach to the study of the Scottish educational system. One of the consequences has been a sharper critical edge to many commentaries on policy developments. This has been aided by a shift in journalistic style towards a less deferential approach to the reporting of events.

Post-devolution developments, following the establishment of the Scottish Parliament, have given new impetus to the study of how education is administered. Fortunately, there are now a number of very good writers who can comment authoritatively on what is happening.

I believe many Scottish teachers still need to be convinced of the value of learning about the operations of those groups and bodies which help to shape their professional lives. Towards this end, The TESS continues to have an important role in keeping them informed about the shifting policy agenda. It is up to contributors to ensure that the hard questions are asked of those who exercise power.

Walter Humes is professor of education at Aberdeen University

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