Politics is a prime mover in education

2nd March 2007 at 00:00
When, in 1561, the Scottish Protestant reformers instituted a system by which education in Scotland was strengthened and literacy for all made a priority, they did so for reasons that were purely political.

Protestant ideology - a potent force at the time, and one quite as aggressive and unbending as any current Islamic fundamentalism - was at the heart of the initiative, for only a populace which could read and write would be capable of taking on board, and then defending, the new radical doctrines. In fact, it would have been impossible to break the power of the established church and the incumbent clergy without empowering ordinary men and women, so that task was tackled with vigour and brooked no opposition.

Three quarters of a century later, the process was speeded up with the insistence of the Scottish Parliament that there be a school in every parish. The final cementing of these arrangements by an Education Act in 1696 was brought to completion by the accession of the very Protestant William of Orange, right, and the defeat and exile of the Catholic James VII. That piece of legislation underpinned the delivery of school learning in Scotland until 1872.

Nineteenth-century reforms were also politically driven - the extension of the school leaving age to 14 was seen as necessary to provide a better prepared workforce and eliminate child poverty. Similarly, the 1918 Act which brought Catholic education into the mainstream was a naked piece of politics, driven by a clear view of what education should and should not be.

It has always been impossible to separate politics from education and from successful educational innovation. A political party's world view is formed by what it wants to achieve for society. How it is to be achieved is then expressed by means of specific policies and it is to education that most politicians turn to entrench their ambitions.

Given the lack of ideological conviction in current Scottish politics, it is not surprising that there appears at present no furore in terms of conflicting views on how education should go forward.

I admit to being a passionate and long-term advocate of a radical reduction in class size - a stance I am delighted to see pushed by the EIS amongst others. For that reason, and many others, I know which of the policies and parties I believe will do most good.

Yet, there is a possibility that the educational consensus in Scotland may not last much longer. The road ahead for Scottish schools may presently seem broad and relatively smooth. But, in a world threatened by environmental degradation, globalisation and the effects of extremism, it will be necessary to re-think how our society is organised - not only how it can grow and develop but what those very words mean.

Education will inevitably be at the heart of this process, and current expectations, methods and content will be challenged by it. Driving this forward will be politicians who need to ensure education can meet their objectives, as endorsed by voters.

No one should mistake structural change, bureaucratic tinkering or meddling micro-management for ideology. They are merely the product of politicians with too little to do and too many civil servants to do it. Parents and teachers are right to resist change when imposed by such people for no good reason.

But everyone should welcome vigorous political debate about what education could and should achieve. In fact, the best things that Scottish education has achieved - including national schooling and mass literacy - have usually come about because politics has driven the process.

Michael Russell is a writer and commentator

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