Missionary work in the 'diverse' East

28th November 2003 at 00:00
On the course of my work, I quite often have to travel from Glasgow to Edinburgh for meetings. I mischievously refer to this as engaging in missionary work in the east. As with most missionary work, it is rather a thankless task. The chances of persuading senior members of the educational establishment to pursue sane and rational policies are, I fear, remote.

Nevertheless, one lives in hope of the occasional convert.

The divide between Glasgow and Edinburgh is a deep one and has many dimensions. Edinburgh serves as the political, legal and financial centre of Scotland and is visibly more prosperous (most tourists do not see the rundown housing schemes). Glasgow has a history of social disadvantage and industrial decline, but also a vibrant popular culture that contrasts with the elitism of the Edinburgh International Festival.

In terms of education, the contrast is even more marked. Some 40 per cent of the children who attend Glasgow schools are entitled to free school meals and clothing grants. In Edinburgh, almost a quarter of the pupil population attend independent schools.

This suggests that we should be cautious in our use of the phrase "the Scottish educational system" as if it were a unified whole. It is wishful thinking, a form of idealism, to imagine that the principles of equality, democracy and social unity are adequately embodied in our provision of schooling. Yet that is part of the mythology that is still invoked when explaining the values of Scottish education to visitors.

The truth is that educational divisions of various kinds are evident in Scotland. There are, for example, huge geographical variations between the highlands and lowlands which call for different educational responses in terms of curriculum and resources. It is only recently that the demand for Gaelic-medium education, which is based on strong arguments about culture, history and identity, has been taken seriously.

Similar arguments are advanced in relation to provision for ethnic minorities. The call for a state-supported Muslim school is being considered by at least one local authority.

Then there is the continuing question of Roman Catholic schools. Critics see them as a source of unhealthy social division and point out that, in France and Italy, state schools are secular and this does not seem to undermine the position of Catholicism. Supporters argue that the right to have separate provision is enshrined in law and has been an important factor in the upward social mobility of the Catholic community in the west of Scotland.

The old antagonisms are perhaps less marked than they used to be, but one does not have to scratch far beneath the surface to uncover positions that reveal bigotry, fear and defensiveness.

These various divisions highlight sensitive issues to do with the processes of policy-making. Research studies have shown that, in the past, certain groups have been under-represented in the councils of state - notably women, Catholics and people from the west of Scotland. This is less so nowadays but the problem of trying to reconcile different interest and pressure groups remains.

It is no accident that the favoured policy terms are now "social inclusion" and "diversity". These can be construed as an attempt to avoid a polarisation of policy debates in terms of poverty, class and inequality.

They purport to offer a more subtle account of how difference can be accommodated within an overall framework that seeks to be inclusive.

But the old questions of wealth and power cannot be entirely silenced by skilful rhetoric. In important respects, Scotland remains a deeply divided society. The short 45 minutes of a ScotRail journey conceals the real distance between Glasgow and Edinburgh.

Walter Humes is professor of education and head of educational studies at Strathclyde University.

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