The right solutions

24th September 2004 at 01:00
Tom Hunter's reported concern (TESS, September 10) that education might become "a gated village that ignores the less fortunate" is already a reality in many of our Scottish secondary schools.

Our political system seems not to have understood that our Scottish comprehensive system is comprehensive in name only. Saying it is comprehensive does not make it so. Plenty of evidence exists that comprehensive education in Scotland does not meet the needs of large numbers of our young people. You only have to speak to them to find out.

Distress signals throughout education are either dismissed or ignored. The truth is that we no longer share a common understanding about what education is actually for. Without unity of purpose, we do not know where we are or what we need to achieve. Consequently, a plethora of palliatives and initiatives has become a substitute for essential structural reform of our education system.

The main reason for this has been the rigorous enforcement of the Munn curriculum throughout our secondary school system. This construct divides all knowledge into nine modes or categories of learning to be delivered on an input model of rigorously prescribed time allocations per week.

Supposedly this has delivered breadth and balance to virtually every secondary scholar throughout Scotland - irrespective of needs, contexts, aspirations or attitudes.

This stereotype for universal comprehensive education seems to have its origins in the structure of medieval universities. It reflects the Victorian prototype for the education of the gentleman destined to enter the civil service, or the officer class of the army, or to become an enlightened, if somewhat impractical, manager of the family business or local estate.

The Munn curriculum pretended to be egalitarian but it is actually elitist, elevating abstract academic learning above those practical applied activities which have traditionally been the valued outcomes of excellence in education. In short, it has focused upon conceptual knowledge and analysis to the virtual exclusion of applied creativity and synthesis. This is not a viable model for universal comprehensive education and we need urgently to address the imbalance between these two modes of learning.

Changes in curriculum design, certification procedures, teacher training and the national vision for education are overdue. Looking at successful good practice in some of our schools (e.g. in Glasgow) would be a good way to start and there is plenty of exciting work taking place, often against the Procrustean demands of the established system.

Importantly, potential investors such as Tom Hunter could be encouraged to think whether or not schools actually fail for lack of resources. Instead of investing everything in failure, which the business world tells us only produces more of it, maybe they might consider putting financial backing into educational initiatives which explore new and appropriate ways of developing and delivering success for all our young people.

There are teachers working in our schools who could deliver the right solutions if only they were asked. Meanwhile, our education system has become a gated village which keeps too many people out.

Ian Nicol (former headteacher, Balerno High) Highfield Road, Scone

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today