Reformers at the root of CfE's budding shoots

24th September 2010 at 01:00

The debates about religion in schools and in public life, which flare up now and then, often not only miss the point but also fail to grasp how far religious faith (particularly in the Christian community) has shaped Scottish education. And still does.

I would say Curriculum for Excellence has echoes of the task and nature of education as it was understood by those behind the Scottish Reformation: to nurture the potential of young people to be who they can be, so they can exert a positive influence and play their part in society.

That depth of understanding within the Christian community, about the role of education in shaping individual lives and society, began prior to the Reformation.

In 1496, Bishop Elphinstone of Aberdeen persuaded James IV to pass the Education Act of the Scottish Privy Council, which made it compulsory for nobles to arrange for the education of their eldest sons. Elphinstone understood that these men would hold power over others and act as arbiters of justice for their area.

It was a deliberate act to improve the quality of life through education. This was the basis of the burgh schools system, and meant Scotland was one of the first countries to have some form of compulsory education.

That understanding of the power of faith in life was deeply rooted in the Reformers' thinking. They wanted to change the way power was used in society. They were egalitarian in their view of humanity, in that everyone (or at least every male) was equal before God. They started to set up schools in every parish, so every boy could live out his potential for God and so change society.

They didn't achieve a school in every parish, but they came close and made sure that their understanding about the necessity for universality of access to education was embedded in the Scottish soul.

This was not a perfect revolution. It was systemically sexist, which is inexcusable. But despite that, it changed Scotland's self-understanding, was a catalyst for the Enlightenment and the bedrock of political change. These things are, in themselves, reasons to make the study of faith and faithfulness key subjects in schools.

But it goes much deeper than that. Curriculum for Excellence moves (perhaps returns) our collective understanding of successful education from the utilitarian approach of "what grades and which job?" to the development of the whole person. The objective of the new curriculum is to nurture young people to be "successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens and effective contributors".

It is rooted in the same thinking as that of the Reformers: society will improve if we are more fully who we can be and, to be fully human, a child needs an education which focuses on the whole person; the deep as well as the skilful, the questioning as well as the informed, critical thinking as well as assimilation of other people's thinking.

The Reformers wanted a school in every parish, so people could be all that God wants them to be. Perhaps, through Curriculum for Excellence, the Reformers' vision has finally been achieved.

Rev Ewan Aitken is secretary of the Church and Society Council of the Church of Scotland.

This is an edited version of an article in the current issue of 'Life and Work'.

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