Land of diversity and dynamism

5th September 2003 at 01:00
A long hard look at the facts is an eye-opener for post-devolution policy-makers, says Frank Pignatelli

That Tom Bryce and Walter Humes should have embarked on such an ambitious project as the production of "a definitive text on Scottish education", providing "a detailed, informed and critical account of Scottish education at the turn of the century", is no surprise to those who know these two distinguished and hugely experienced academics.

Nor is the fact that the first edition of Scottish Education, a veritable tome of some 1,040 pages containing 112 chapters written by 120 contributors, was received with significant critical acclaim on publication (1999), being considered to be formidable and impressive with a sharp, critical edge.

The second edition, launched yesterday (Thursday) in Glasgow, builds on these strengths and reflects the changing education environment in post-devolution Scotland and is similar in ambition and even more extensive in scope than its predecessor, running to 1,088 pages containing 115 chapters.

In addition to sections offering an introductory overview and a final look to the future, 11 further sections of the book cover policy, administration and context; the organisation, management and curriculum of the pre-school, primary and secondary sectors; further and higher education; assessment, certification and achievements; education for all; and teacher education.

The diversity of views of the 126 authors lends the work a dynamism and variety rarely encountered in such weighty tomes. The balance of writers, bringing together insiders with first-hand experience of their area and therefore able to offer a unique view of change as it occurred, and outsiders with a more objective, critical view, ensures a text that is authoritative yet accessible, scholarly yet provocative, definitive yet iconoclastic.

Despite the very detailed, formulaic editorial guidance offered to the writers, individual chapters of the book retain an individuality and variety that lends diversity and interest to an otherwise intimidating tome. The editors are to be congratulated on their ability to encourage direct, honest and, in some cases, exciting accounts of many fairly dry aspects of policy and practice in Scotland. Perhaps inevitably, in such an ambitious and extensive project, the quality of the contributions is variable, ranging from the outstanding to the merely competent. Overall, however, the quality of writing and analysis is high.

John Darling's impressive analysis of the philosophy and practice of primary education offers invaluable philosophical and political insights into the Caledonian caution that has ensured the stability and success of Scottish primary education over the years ("innovations are adopted cautiously and judiciously . . . child-centred education has tended to be relatively well received in Scotland because it has been practised in a level-headed form").

The local governance of education in Scotland is expertly dealt with by two of Scotland's most experienced local government officers. Keir Bloomer's perceptive and provocative analysis of the political context in Scotland poses some tough questions that go to the heart of the debate about national and local governance of education in post-devolution Scotland.

Gordon Jeyes offers a stimulating and at times controversial perspective on the challenges facing local government at a time of rapid organisational, political and legislative change. His account confirms that some of the fundamental questions around the role of local government, market models of education, integrated service delivery and school improvement remain unresolved.

The inclusion in this edition of 32 new authors, sometimes writing on the same topic as previous contributors, not only offers the opportunity for fresh insights on particular topics but reminds the reader of the fundamentally subjective nature of all historical analysis.

Craig Thomson's cautious, realistic, yet upbeat and optimistic account of further education in Scotland points clearly to a sector that is successfully dealing with the many challenges identified by Michael Leech, writing on the same topic four years earlier. Douglas Weir's critical, robust and at times provocative analysis of the role of the inspectorate historically and in more recent times contrasts sharply with the account offered by the former senior chief inspector in the first edition, an account inevitably conditioned by the experience of the writer as the ultimate insider within that organisation.

Clearly, the scale and scope of the book are such that few in the education service will be able to find time to do justice to the whole work; nor will many policy-makers and politicians. Some chapters are so significant, however, that they should be required reading for anyone with an interest in or responsibility for any aspect of the service in Scotland.

Julie Allan's hugely impressive and sensitive piece on inclusion should be of concern to every teacher, lecturer, parent, policy-maker and politician in Scotland. Combining a clear and helpful description of the legislative and historical context, she skilfully analyses the conceptual confusion around this topic, cuts through the muddled thinking that has characterised much of the debate and offers some helpful pointers on inclusive practice, based on her own and others' extensive research. Helpfully, she links all of this to the potential role of the Scottish Parliament in addressing the challenges.

Her final words bear repeating in full: "For inclusion to succeed, it will be necessary for teachers to reconcile their professionally based and deficit-orientated approach, which focuses on helping, with the pupils'

desire to be included in more subtle and less visible ways. It is also crucial that the voices of those who have the most direct experience of inclusion are allowed to influence any future developments of policy and practice."

Post-devolution Scotland would do well to bear these words in mind.

Frank Pignatelli, former director of education at Strathclyde Region, is chief executive of the Scottish University for Industry. Scottish Education Post-Devolution, by Tom Bryce and Walter Humes, is published by Edinburgh University Press at pound;24.99.

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