Importance of the evolution of Scots education

6th June 2008 at 01:00
Some years ago, GH Bantock, an academic whose works regularly appeared on the reading lists of students taking courses in education, wrote an essay titled The parochialism of the present
Some years ago, GH Bantock, an academic whose works regularly appeared on the reading lists of students taking courses in education, wrote an essay titled The parochialism of the present. He argued that there was too much emphasis on what seemed to be relevant to the here and now, the immediate, the contemporary. What was lacking, he suggested, was a sense of history, an awareness of how current values and preoccupations have been shaped by past circumstances, and of how earlier generations had radically different views on the aims of education from our own.

Bantock died in 1997 and his writings are largely neglected. This is perhaps not surprising since the trends he deplored have, if anything, become more marked. Whereas in the past, students training to be teachers were expected to take a course on the history of education, this requirement no longer applies. There may be an occasional lecture on "The Scottish Educational Tradition", but nothing sustained or systematic.

Hardly any research on educational history takes place in faculties of education in Scotland, partly because it is not held in high esteem compared to large funded projects in the social sciences.

My research output reflects this. In the early 1980s, I co-edited a book, Scottish Culture and Scottish Education 1800-1980, but most of my publications since have dealt with more recent events.

It is not hard to think why this has happened. Faced with the prospect of having to deal with the challenging realities of life in schools, trainee teachers came to regard history of education as, at best, a luxury they could do without and, at worst, a tedious irrelevance to their immediate needs. They want to know about new thinking on curriculum and assessment, strategies of classroom management, the identification of children with special needs, and the standards of conduct they are expected to meet.

Likewise, the pace of change at the level of policy means that time pressures on courses became acute and anything that lacked obvious practical value was squeezed out.

All this is understandable. What is less so is the disappearance of much in the way of historical awareness in official documents. In HMIE reports, for example, it is rare to find references to anything that might indicate appreciation of the historical development of Scottish education. It would be instructive to compare the rationale of A Curriculum for Excellence with that of the Munn report of 1977 or the Advisory Council report on secondary education of 1947. I doubt if many readers would conclude that the quality of thinking and reasoning in the first of these is superior to the other two.

That highlights one of the real dangers of the loss of a sense of history. It leads to a form of arrogance that routinely gives precedence to the current, assuming that it invariably represents "progress".

In many ways, it is ironic that education as a discipline has virtually abandoned a historical perspective at a time when Scotland as a nation has been asserting its distinctive identity more strongly than for centuries. Part of this has involved celebrating past achievements and expressing hopes for the future. Education is an important part of this story and prospective teachers should know something about its evolution.

Walter Humes is research professor in education at the University of the West of Scotland.

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