Why can't we teach Scottish politics?

5th September 1997 at 01:00
Well, here we are, two ballot crosses away from the return of a Scottish parliament, and how is modern studies, the school subject which encourages students to take an active role in contemporary society and develop political literacy, reacting to this colossal constitutional change? The Modern Studies Specialist Group, which decides on the content of the subject, has just announced that 17-year-olds, studying Advanced Higher, will not have the option of studying Scottish politics. The three topics on offer will be "Law and Order", the "European Union" and "Comparative Politics".

The proposals in the newly published arrangements document for the new Higher and Advanced Higher do not encourage my colleagues in the largest modern studies department in east Scotland to believe the situation is to be rectified. Indeed, there appears to be a blatant attempt to further downgrade the Scottish dimension at both levels. Yet in the preamble to any modern studies syllabus, certain key phrases recur. There should be handling of evidence about contemporary political issues. Study of the subject develops an understanding of the fundamental processes which underpin political life. These processes are considered in local, national and international contexts which are both relevant and significant. The course should encourage objectivity and tolerance.

All through the 1980s, Higher grade candidates could study a topic that took in the four main options for governing Scotland (status quo, devolution, federal government and independence). It traced the emergence of the SNP, the Kilbrandon report, the 1979 referendum, the Constitutional Convention, the significance of by-elections such as Govan, examined the role of the Secretary of State for Scotland and the Scottish Office, the conflict with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, discussed Scotland's national identity, explained the Doomsday Scenario and Claim of Right and looked at the significance of the 1992 March for Democracy. There were few modern studies teachers who wanted our 17-year-olds to leave the subject knowing nothing of these, especially when Standard grade did not encompass these issues either.

Then, in the 1990s, came the revised Higher grade. The topic was to be abandoned and in the consultation that followed a third of all submissions dealt with the Scottish dimension. The Modern Studies Association reported that members wholeheartedly rejected the view that the Scottish dimension was implicit in the new syllabus. The SNP demanded that it remain at least an option. Individual teachers and the modern studies panels of the teacher unions also joined the fight.

The working party justified the transfer of the topic to the Certificate of Sixth Year Studies, where it has been studied ever since by a tiny fraction of the most able students, on the grounds that it had become "somewhat arid" and "there was a low uptake anyway". These were interesting arguments considering that the immensely arid "Local Government" unit is still taught. In the new arrangements document, as part of Higher Still, the problem has not been addressed. The Scottish Qualifications Authority can claim that "Scotland appears in the syllabus". At Advanced Higher it cannot. All of which begs the question, why have such an expensive, long drawn out consultation process? We were told that Higher Still would lead to minimal change and disruption or expense. Tell that to the modern studies departments which taught "Scottish Politics" and the "Middle East" to fulfil the modern studies pledge of handling current national and international issues of relevance to young adults but now find both abandoned by sleight of hand. That means an even greater increase in workload and in turn more stress, and expense for hard-pressed departments. I have asked at conferences how all this can be justified. I was told it would cost too much to continue including these topics in the examination paper. This is totally unsatisfactory.

I was also told that such topics might return in years to come if there were a demand or their relevance was overwhelming. How will such a demand be gauged?

There is clearly a concerted attempt to further downgrade the Scottish dimension. What other democratic nation would allow discussion of its constitutional future to be almost prohibited in this way? Are the reasons educational or political?

John Lloyd is principal teacher of modern studies at Inveralmond Community High School, Livingston.

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