Scottish schools in the vanguard

24th January 1997 at 00:00
Scottish education had its own equivalent of the Plowden Report, which appeared two years earlier in 1965. Those affected by it have differing conclusions about the impact and worth of The Primary Memorandum. The national Committee on Primary Education in 1983 suggested that "most Scottish teachers are aware only of slanted accounts of its contents rather than what the document itself actually says".

The Memorandum was indeed a watershed, according to the committee, which set out "simply and clearly, often in a fairly conservative way, a philosophy of primary education with which few would argue". Above all, it called for an education which:

* started with the needs and was responsive to the interests of the child; * was appropriate to age, aptitude and ability; * saw pupils as active in their own learning; * Jwould be supported by less authoritarian relationships; * Jemphasised the links between subjects; * left curriculum balance to the judgment of the teacher; * favoured assessment as a guide to learning rather than a way of comparing pupils; and * took place in flexible and attractive classroom settings.

The broad primary curriculum of today is still directly related to the Memorandum, which was not without its problems. Although it emphasised the importance of the relationship between subject areas, its stance over curricular integration left many teachers unsure of how to proceed. The enigmatic statement that "subjects will begin to emerge around Primary 5" (age 9) was difficult then and has still to be resolved. As the Committee on Primary Education commented in 1987, "Teachers were asked to teach in ways that they had not experienced as pupils or students ... crucial tensions between subject teaching and an integrated approach were not even perceived, never mind resolved."

The Memorandum's statement that primary education should be a stage in its own right and not simply a preparation for secondary school has been diminished by today's 5-14 programme with its emphasis on continuity throughout those years. But its stance of 30 years ago still remains a core belief for many primary teachers.

Our views about children and how they learn, as well as what they learn, were significantly affected. The need for understanding in learning was emphasised and undoubtedly influenced practice, but teachers became confused by arid arguments over whether content or process was the most important aspect of a child's education. One lasting impact, however, is seen in the central place given to active learning in primary schools and to the place of investigations and problem-solving within science, technology and mathematics today.

The centrality of the child in the learning process was a key principle of the Memorandum. Yet there is no evidence that any Scottish teacher abandoned everything to a curriculum dedicated solely to children's interests, nor that many subscribed to the view that it did not matter what children knew as long as they found out for themselves. Indeed, a 1980 HMI survey of learning and teaching among eight and eleven-year-olds noted that: "The Scottish primary school teacher insists on making her pupils literate and numerate. She does not, however, sufficiently recognise that there are fields of human experience and competence beyond these."

At one time it may have looked as though good quality assessment had become a casualty of the Memorandum's criticisms of formal testing. Today, there is much more support available for effective assessment than ever before, allowing pupils' active involvement in their own assessment in a way that the Memorandum's authors - an anonymous team of HMI - would have welcomed.

Another lasting impact can be seen in the physical environment of schools. The legacy of open-plan buildings can be seen across the country, embodying the attempts (and varying success) of a generation of architects and planners to give physical substance to the educational philosophies of the time. Our concerns today with ethos and with relationships have continued to make primary schools places where it is pleasant to learn.

The hostility and indifference of some headteachers may have slowed down the early take-up of the Memorandum's ideas. The 1971 HMI report notes: "Where class teachers have abandoned traditional methods and programmes of work they have frequently found themselves unsure of how to proceed; and many headteachers have not been able to give them constructive help because they lacked the expertise and the confidence."

Headteachers had, quite suddenly, been left with the responsibility for implementing two new concepts: that of a curriculum rather than a syllabus and that of flexibility. A hidden impact of the Memorandum may be that it created the conditions that provoked a move away from the professional autonomy that it envisaged towards a central role for "management" in the Eighties and Nineties culture of accountability.

Today's obsession with "national" curriculums tends to make us forget that the benchmark for progress up to as recently as 1987 was the guidance of the Memorandum. If the implementation of its recommendations was expected in 1965 to be straightforward, experience has proved the opposite. That is not to say that nothing was taking place: cohorts of teachers attended in-service courses and local policies and guidelines flourished. Attention was given to making teaching effective in a way that had been previously ignored. But the Memorandum's lasting impact was that it laid to rest the view that teaching and learning are unproblematic activities.

* The writer is director of teacher education at Moray House Institute of Education, Edinburgh

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