History's lesson from a century of consensus

13th June 2003 at 01:00
A passionate attachment to tradition has left the democratic intellect short on radicalism, says Willis Pickard

THE history of Scottish education has been squeezed out of initial teacher training, but it should be encouraged as an option in continuing professional development. Studying the way in which the bureaucrats stifled the radical hopes for schools after both world wars is useful background for, say, teachers discontented with the form taken by Higher Still.

Two contrasting books just published might help to take educational history beyond the province of a handful of specialists and enthusiasts. Lindsay Paterson brings his sociological training to an ambitious attempt to tell the story of the twentieth century in 200 pages. Curiously, the last century has been less well researched than its predecessor.

The challenge of 19th century industrialisation, religious controversy and the increasing role of the state gave education a historical focus. Even the astonishing increase in participation of the past 100 years has not attracted the attention of social and economic historians to the same extent and, until at least the 1960s, the main controversies - such as, from 1918, the nature and purpose of secondary education - were outwith party politics.

Looking for guiding principles, Professor Paterson adopts the notion of the "democratic intellect" - although he disputes the belief of George Davie, who gave it currency, that the democratic tradition was betrayed by the development in schools and universities of a more focused curriculum based on specific subjects in place of a philosophy-founded general education.

Paterson translates the tradition into one of "socialised individualism" in which the ambitions of pupils and their parents were married to a continuing faith in an academic as opposed to a vocational curriculum and to society's willingness to invest in institutions that would instil acceptance of its boundaries and beliefs.

One of Paterson's most interesting conclusions is that individualism within national institutions, most notably the comprehensive secondary that dominated from the 1970s, also allowed Scotland to adopt and adapt the more aggressive individualism of the Conservative reforms of the 1980-90s.

Parents did not see themselves as "consumers" of education but they happily made individual choices about the school they wanted. They continued to trust teachers' professional judgments and lent their weight to the campaign against national tests. They remained true to the belief that academic education is best and boosted the expansion of the universities.

Widespread support for a tradition that accommodates growth and changing circumstances means that radical challenge is rarely successful, and the intelligent policy-maker is able to keep control by operating within the accepted parameters. Paterson shows how that can stifle initiative at two critical moments of the century.

The 1918 Act, as well as providing for Roman Catholic schools in the national system, sought to expand secondary education, but the little remembered Circular 44 of 1921 effectively told education authorities to restrict access to full secondary courses, delaying their development by a generation. Had the famous 1947 Advisory Council report not been sidelined, the worst aspects of the sterile division between senior and junior secondaries might have been avoided.

Paterson's material is mainly official reports and academic monographs.

Though heavy with statis-tics, his is a masterly summary of a complex story. He would no doubt be the first to agree that much historical work at local level needs to be done. David Northcroft's anthology gives the human dimension from the mid-18th century to the present day, with extracts from the memoirs of teachers, pupils and administrators and well chosen snippets of official documents.

A former vice-principal of Northern College, he is strongest on the north-east, for long the most self-assertive part of the country educationally. Northcroft accuses the Government in its 1999 paper Targeting Excellence of failing to "engage with history's personal power", thus emptying it of "sustained human meaning for the very people it claims to be consulting".

Willis Pickard is a former editor of The TES Scotland. "Scottish Education in the Twentieth Century", by Lindsay Paterson, is published by Edinburgh University Press, price pound;16.99. "Scots at School", by David Northcroft, is from the same publisher, price pound;13.99.

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