Impressive legacy that will be hard to top

5th September 2008 at 01:00

The appearance in late 1999 of the monumental Scottish Education, edited by Tom Bryce and Walter Humes, met widespread acclaim within and beyond the education community. Here was a welcome corrective to the tendency for educational developments in Scotland to pass under-recorded and under-analysed.

The success of the first edition was repeated in a second, in 2003, the combined sales exceeding 11,000, making Scottish Education a bestseller for Edinburgh University Press. The third edition - SE3 - is a worthy successor. It demonstrates the same massive scale, and the same encyclopaedic coverage: over 1,000 pages, 109 chapters, and 115 authors.

SE3 is no mere clone of earlier volumes. Each chapter has been reviewed and revised in the light of the book's sub-title, Beyond Devolution, incorporating developments as far as the installation of the SNP administration in 2007. Several new chapters have been included; 40 new authors enlisted; and a section charting future developments, perhaps the most provocative in the book, added.

The brief to which the contributors wrote required them to refrain from what is "simply descriptive" and to "offer a sharp critical perspective on key issues". For the most part, they have adhered to them. There are numerous chapters where the level of analysis is impressively high, which are models of lucidity, perceptive and stimulating, and well (in some cases, elegantly) written.

After a long read, the reviewer has the impression that SE3 is more a report of work in progress than a record of achievement. The years following devolution have been busy, and detectable in the writing is a renaissance of professional confidence, deriving possibly from the existence of the Scottish Parliament and its consensus-seeking mode of operation.

It is fair to record that, in several spheres, policy is not yet fully formulated, or is in the early stages of implementation. For example, will A Curriculum for Excellence (despite the theoretical flimsiness of the founding document), Assessment is for Learning and the additional support needs initiative exert the transformational impact now confidently anticipated? To what extent will allegiance to the values of the Scottish educational tradition (frequently invoked and analysed in the book) impede the adoption of improved practices? How effectively can we develop the inter-professional collaboration essential to the attack on poverty and disadvantage, a problem which at least six of the chapters conclude to be beyond the resources of the school alone to resolve?

Finally, given that a mere handful of the contributors are practising teachers, what steps will prove necessary to heal the rift that SE3 has reinforced between the world of practice and the commentariat? These questions form part of the challenging agenda bequeathed by SE3 and to which subsequent editions will need to respond.

Sadly, on page 918, Bryce and Humes drop a strong hint that this edition will be their last. All of us owe them an enormous debt of gratitude for initiating this project, for managing it, for securing such extensive involvement, and for exploiting the opportunity to strengthen that culture of critical reflection so essential to a vibrant and responsive educational service. While they have provided an impressive model for subsequent editions, they prove an extremely hard act to follow.

Gordon Kirk was dean of education and vice-principal of the University of Edinburgh.

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