The virtues and vices of the way we teach;Platform;Opinion;Books

20th August 1999 at 01:00
SCOTTISH EDUCATION. Edited by Tom Bryce and Walter Humes. Edinburgh University Press pound;24.99.

A definitive text has been delivered, but Holyrood's bible won't set the heather on fire, says David Eastwood

PROMISED IN advance of elections to the Scottish Parliament and delivered in time for the millennium, Scottish Education is a substantial volume of more than 1,000 closely printed pages and clearly not for the faint-hearted or the weak sighted.

So who is it for? The cover asserts it is "the definitive reference work" which is "likely to become the standard text" providing "comprehensive coverage" of "every aspect of education in Scotland", including "current achievements and future challenges".

In their introduction, the editors are similarly upbeat. "We have endeavoured to provide a definitive text." However, by the time we get to the concluding chapter 112, it seems they are less sure: "We would not wish to assert that . . . this volume...has ensured comprehensive coverage of every aspect of Scottish education."

So at the end of the book they play the modesty card, hoping readers will find they have made a "small contribution" to the anticipated education debate in the context of the new Parliament.

In more specific terms, this book claims to deliver a comprehensive overview which will promote the "sensible evolution of educational practice", provide insight into the distinctiveness of Scottish education, assist professionals seeking information outside their own specialism and serve as a text for students.

The book is divided into 12 major sections covering policy, administration and context; the management and curriculum of the pre-school, primary and secondary sectors; further and higher education; assessment, pupils' achievements and "education for all"; and teacher education. The editors provide both an introduction describing how the text is organised and a postscript looking to the future.

By commissioning 110 chapters, they clearly suppose that they have provided comprehensive coverage. In one sense, they have. But a closer look at the list of 130 contributors reveals no classroom teachers, no students, no commercial or industrial managers, no local or national politicians.

This indicates that the book is largely the professional educational establishment's view of itself and its social context. Also, a collection of articles such as this (no matter how good they are individually) only constitutes an "overview" in a limited sense.

However, there is a more fundamental objection to face. Given our rapidly changing educational environment, is a book any longer the most appropriate medium? Imagine how this material could have greatly improved the Scottish Virtual Teachers' Centre as an online resource, capable of rapid correction and open to added comment and further contributions. The absence of any reference to excellence funding shows how quickly things can change.

Clearly a brief review cannot consider each contribution. However, prospective purchasers can be assured that the overall standard is high. As a collection of individually useful items, this is extraordinarily good value. But there is a tendency, most apparent in the short articles on secondary subjects, for contributors to be constrained into a descriptive, rather than a critical, style.

For example, in 10 pages, Margaret Kirkwood manages to present an excellent summary of the main threads in the debate on differentiation, but has no space to consider the underlying notion of "ability" itself or the fashions in its explanation. Why is it that ideas such as Schon's "reflective practitioner" or Gardner's "multiple intelligences" exert an influence out of all proportion to their empirical foundation?

The restriction placed on authors to list no more than six references means that a number of contributors slip other citations into their main text, thereby giving a bad example of technique to students, who will clearly be a major audience (and who would have benefited from a larger selection of reference material).

There are some gems which enliven what is otherwise a rather sober text. Nigel Paine delivers a valedictory kick up the backside of the Superhighways Project and it does not require too much reading between the lines to appreciate David Carr's Cook's tour of values education.

Overall, elucidation of the "distinctiveness" of Scottish education is as much implicit as explicit. While admiring the diligence which has produced such a vast assembly of impressive material, it is doubtful if this book will do much to change the course of Scottish education. In part this is because of the patterns of policy-making so well described by Walter Humes, one of the editors, but also because so much of this book is about yesterday's problems.

The complacent notion of the future as a "sensible evolution of educational practice" seems to blind us to the possibility of radical change. Perhaps this accounts for the surprisingly weak set of research issues which the editors distil from the range of contributions: rights, responsibilities and legal duties of teachers; the economics of education; provision for the less able and minorities; and Higher Still.

Nevertheless, this book will be of considerable value to students and to those who wish to navigate for the first time an area of Scottish education with which they are not familiar. Any single reference book has both the virtue and the vice of convenience. In this case, the general quality of the contributions tips the balance in favour of virtue.

David Eastwood, a former headteacher and local government official, is in the department of management studies, Aberdeen University.

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