Platform: Bring back the Blue Books

25th July 1997 at 01:00
There have been no annual Education in Scotland reports, presented to Parliament by the Secretary of State, since 1979. Often called Blue Books after their cover, they reached a peak in bulk and significance in the 1950s and 1960s. At that time my favourite Christmas gift was the Eagle annual, and I was unaware that MPs and educationists had to wait till April or May for theirs. Andrew McPherson, Charles Raab, Henry Philip and others have mined the rich sections on secondary education in the Blue Books. Few have drawn upon the equally interesting pages about primary schools, although Susan Pringle and Bill Gatherer are exceptions. Indeed all the books offer an archive for contemporary official perspectives and policies.

We are never told who wrote the Blue Books. The 1964 book merely admitted that its school sections were "based on reports by HM Inspectors", and the 1966 volume pointed out the problems in stopping the clock every December 31: "A year is too short a period for which to offer an adequate assessment of trends and movements. Moreover it is easy to concentrate on administrative aspects of less real importance than basic work in schools." The 1976 preface accepted that "the annual report needed rethinking" and would now simply list "the most important events" and "the Department's main publications". Even that slimline version fizzled out with the 1979 book.

How very different from the solid dimension of Blue Books which followed the first Primary Memorandum, The Primary School in Scotland, in 1950. One feature that set apart the early primary sections was their ambivalence about two kinds of influence on schools, primary 7 attainment tests and local authority schemes of work. Such ambivalence evaporated in the 1960s books, which were the most critical of "restriction" on teachers' work that Scotland has known.

At first the books supported the beneficial effect of tests on arithmetic teaching (1950) and "substantial improvement" in grammar (1951) and composition (1952). Doubts appeared in 1954 and 1955. "A disturbing feature#201; is excessive preoccupation#201; with promotion tests#201; leading to neglect of history, geography and nature study". This was specially a problem "during the month before the tests", and after all, the school's "proper task is to develop capacities of pupils through the curriculum appropriate to this stage".

The Blue Books were silent until 1962 on the question of transfer. By 1963 all caution had gone and authorities that ended primary 7 attainment tests were praised for "a more liberal form of education". Tests "may loom menacingly over the whole school", and in 1964 "the shadow of the test still spreads far down many schools".

"County schemes of work" also divided the 1950s books from subsequent ones. The 1952 book praised "revised schemes" as a means for the Memorandum "to have a notable effect". "New keenness and zest on the part of teachers and pupils" was attributed to some county schemes in 1955. Even so, the Scottish Education Department was not relying on local guidelines alone, and thought it essential to issue surveys on reading, arithmetic and composition in the Blue Books and in separate pamphlet form (1954-58). In 1960, the climate changed. "County schemes have provided a standard, an aim", but some teachers have shown "too rigid adherence to the scheme. This may stifle initiative." By 1965, schools apparently were not adapting schemes "to the particular needs of their own pupils", and after the famous second Primary Memorandum it was up to teachers' "professional responsibility" to supply details for a general local scheme.

A constant leitmotif from 1950 to 1965 at least was that group teaching methods had to be "more widely and intelligently used". The 1957 book devoted 10 pages to their advantages, and to the problems, which were in handwriting and speech. By 1962, "the most urgently needed development is to provide for the most able pupils". From 1965, the new Memorandum held official sway with its support for group and individual teaching, while the Blue Books no longer thought it necessary to comment on grouping, or specifically on able pupils or levels of ability.

Another line of continuity, notably from 1957 to 1967, was in claiming that the most heroic figures were infant teachers. In 1959, the authors wrote of "notable advances in infant-room methods over 30 years". In 1951, 8-11 were called "the least profitable years", and 1967 stressed the "urgent need of objective planning" in primary 6 and primary 7. Blue Books often described primary curriculum development as a kind of capillary action, starting with infant classes and gradually reaching older ages. "News talks are being extended" (1959) and, the following year, "free composition is beginning to appear in P3 and P4". In one school, slow learners in P3 "caught up" when the infant mistress taught them. The sun broke through the Blue skies with "bright and lively" infant classrooms and their "progressive outlook". After 1967, the Blue Books hardly referred to infant teachers, not because of criticism, but because there appeared to be a new house style which omitted pupils' ages within primary and instead placed individual schools in the limelight. Whereas 1966 referred in the usual anonymous terms to "a small number of schools in Edinburgh", 1967 praised Howwood primary, Lochearnhead and Lybster. From 1968 to 1972 the curtain rose upon schools as far apart as Thornliebank, South Morningside and John O'Groats.

It seems that the SED's ideal in Blue Books was continuity down the years,or at worst some reference to change as development or updating, never as discontinuity. Occasionally, however, even skilful writing could not paper over a crack in official policy, and this was clearest over primary physical education. In 1954, the Blue Book described a new PE syllabus as "important advice" and the SED published seven booklets on the subject, which by 1958 showed "a marked improvement in standards". In 1962, "the new syllabus is proving helpful". But suddenly, out of the Blue Book of 1966, there was concern that many teachers are still "rigidly" following the syllabus in gymnastics, which is now considered to be out of date: "much more emphasis must be given to inventive movement". The new factor was the 1965 Memorandum, which rejected much of 1950s PE practice and policy. What was to be done? In 1967, a small working party was set up to reconcile the differences. The next Blue Book gave an unprecedented space to the matter, citing an organisers' conference, in-service courses, teachers' panel booklets and specialist teachers' efforts to bridge the fault line that had appeared. There was no admission that any previous policy or curriculum had been wrong, merely that primary education had moved on through "evolution".

Perhaps they did not challenge the zest and colour of my childhood Eagle but some Blue Books offer a touch of welcome irony. In 1961, a Borders primary exchanged tape-recordings with one in New York, which "sent sounds heard outside the classroom window - roar of traffic and scream of police car sirens". The Scottish teachers recorded "the trill of skylarks and the song of an obliging blackbird".

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