Taking the rough with the smooth

26th September 2003 at 01:00
The second edition of Scottish Education is a wonderful reference book for students of the Scottish educational system.

Yet, for all the admirable detail that it contains, it does not provide any philosophical template for the development of the system over the next few decades. There is an urgent need for a philosophical debate coming out of this significant mine of information.

Without such a debate, Scottish education is all too likely to flounder, buffeted by political and economic circumstances and failing to achieve the benefits that should flow from such an important and expensive public service.

In the final summative chapter of the book, Walter Humes and Tom Bryce, the joint editors, warn that the Scottish system has always been inclined towards pragmatism,"focused on immediate practical questions and distrustful of theory".

I should like to suggest, however tentatively, that the philosophical debate should begin with an examination of the attitude of many Scottish educationists to aspiration and achievement.

Sound learning by any individual absolutely requires a degree of commitment, a willingness to take the rough with the smooth and an acceptance that gratification may be deferred. These positive attitudes are best cultivated if there are clear incentives in the form of better prospects of employment, higher earnings and general life satisfaction.

First generation owner-occupiers wish to ensure that their children enjoy the same status and rightly see that education is the key to this. So they seek out the best schools, either through the placing request process or by choosing, in the first place, to live in the catchment areas of these schools. Importantly in the context of educational philosophy, these first-generation effects produce further effects in subsequent generations.

Remarkably, the shift to comprehensive secondary education, while it removed the indefensible injustice of the senior and junior secondary schools, did nothing to stop the "ghettoisation" of education resulting from school catchment areas that were inescapably based on different forms of housing provision.

The resources which have been poured into areas of social deprivation and into educational programmes that were designed to improve the achievement of pupils coming from poorer homes did not lead, sadly, to an overall improvement in educational standards.

The mistake was in underestimating the importance of aspiration and incentive in the educational process. I would like to suggest that we should now, unashamedly, link education to aspiration. We should harness the ambitions of middle-class parents for the education of their children, recognise that such ambition is supportive of educational achievement and seek to spread this effect to less prosperous social groups.

This kind of movement is already visible in housing policy. The worst council housing areas are being demolished and replaced by lower density, mixed-tenure developments. New expensive estates now include, at the insistence of local councils, areas of "affordable" housing. We should have a comparable movement in education.

A commitment to encouraging aspiration and to equality of opportunity (as distinct from the currently fashionable but unachievable ideal of equality) would provide a basis for sound decisions on detailed questions as and when they arise.

Fred Forrester

North Larches


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