Let's not overstate our differences

2nd September 2005 at 01:00
The Scots pride themselves on the distinctive nature of their education system. But, says David Bell, in terms of both weaknesses and strengths, there are far more similarities between what is going on in classrooms south and north of the border than many realise

It's no more than a quirk of fate but my life in education has exactly paralleled the history of The TESS. I entered Miss Young's P1 class at Knightswood primary school in 1965 and, 40 years on, I now find myself in one of the more high-profile roles in English education.

Even more curiously, I had a 20-year spell in Scotland and have just completed 20 years in England. In that latter period, I've remained an interested, if increasingly detached, observer of the Scottish scene.

It must be a year of anniversaries for me. Thirty years after receiving the fourth-year prize for Latin at Knightswood secondary, I was back there in June as the guest of honour at the school's awards evening - although sad to say, there was no prize in the classics this year.

In the very same assembly hall where I was speaking, I recalled defending the proposition, "This house believes that the Loch Ness monster exists", in the debating competition organised by the late lamented Scottish Daily Express.

That was a more civilised exchange with other schools. Being the alma mater of Alan Rough, Knightswood always thought it had a bit to prove in the footballing stakes. But, as Scotland's first specialist school in dance (nearly 20 years ahead of the English), it was more likely to be producing another Billy Elliot than another Billy Stark, him of Celtic and Aberdeen fame.

But Knightswood had something to prove in another way too. It was Glasgow's second purpose-built comprehensive school. When I arrived there in 1971, it was entering into a dynamic and expansionist phase under its then headteacher, Norman McAulay, himself a leading Scottish educationalist of the time.

Full of passionate young teachers, and not a few idealists either, the school was the embodiment of the comprehensive revolution. It was a social engineer's dream with an almost perfectly balanced intake from three feeder primary schools.

And in many ways Knightswood succeeded. It opened up undreamt of opportunities for the children of the respectable working class in the outer west end of Glasgow. That was true in similar schools up and down the country. Many young people, myself included, found themselves propelled off to university as the first generation in their families to go into higher education.

And that generation of schools helped to reinforce a good Scottish conceit that its education system was somehow better than that south of the border.

The origins of this particular myth went deep into the heart of Calvinism.

But hasn't Scottish education always been more, well, sensible over the last four decades? And hasn't the "lad o' pairts", and his modern-day equivalent, always succeeded whilst his Cockney cousin has been consigned to the concrete jungle of some godforsaken English comprehensive?

The excesses of aspects of the English education system undoubtedly fuelled some of that mythology. The 1965 Primary Memorandum in Scotland did not contain some of the ideological zeal of the 1967 Plowden report south of the border. The nadir of that particular revolution was the William Tyndale primary school in London, where the progressive ideal actually turned out to be a Lord of the Flies reality.

And of course by the time Mrs Thatcher came to power in 1979, the downright awful and the barking mad bits of the English system combined to break down the progressive consensus that had dominated since the passing of the 1944 Education Act.

Scotland, untouched and untroubled with little to worry about compared to the decadence of the English education system, carved out its own future.

Even better, successive Conservative Secretaries of State for Scotland came to see the error of their Thatcherite ways and Scottish education prided itself on an "only invented here" policy.

That last bit might be true, but the rest almost certainly isn't. There is no doubt that the causes cel bres of the English system helped to fuel deep discontent on the political right in England. But it is also true that structural weaknesses in both the Scottish and English systems were beginning to show.

A national curriculum emerged in both countries although woe betide anyone who actually called it that in Scotland. Examination and testing were under the microscope. Properly too, the old-fashioned view that the man in county hall or the woman in the city chambers knew best was being challenged as parents were given more say in their children's education.

Yet at least the dreaded Ofsted, despite having two Scots as chief inspectors and another who was not short of an opinion or two on Scotland, never crossed the border. But surprise surprise, regular and routine school inspection became as much a feature of the Scottish system as it did of the English.

Crucially, looking at the systems today, and over the past few years, many of the successes and weaknesses are held in common. There are many good comprehensive schools but still too many that are under-performing and weak. More pupils are doing better in the education system, but the most deprived youngsters are slipping behind. There's also a greater awareness of the priority that needs to be given to vocational education but much to be done before it becomes a reality.

So today, as yesterday, I remain an inherent sceptic about the innate superiority of the Scottish education system, having seen it from both sides of the fence. I don't envy Scotland's village-like atmosphere and, I have to say, I might find that even more stifling in these days of devolution.

Nor do I understand why headteachers in Scottish schools are prepared to remain in hock to their local authorities to a degree that wouldn't be tolerated by their southern counterparts.

But just occasionally I think it would be nice not to have education quite the stuff of headlines as it is in England. And having one examination board seems, well, sensible as is a General Teaching Council that has clout and status. And then, there's the Educational Institute of Scotland and their equivalents in the English teaching unions. That's the stuff of memoirs, I think.

David Bell is chief inspector of schools in England.

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