Half a century on and we’re just getting going

2nd October 2015 at 01:00
The birth of the comprehensive, devolution debates, the revolving door of national testing – much has changed in 50 years of TESS, recalls Neil Munro, and Scottish education is still on the march

Heady days, the year 1965. Comprehensive education was ushered in, the world’s first General Teaching Council was established in Scotland – and TESS was born. The magazine has since outlived eight prime ministers, five first ministers of Scotland and 22 Scottish education ministers.

Those early days were times of plenty. There was money for everything: massive teacher recruitment; the raising of the school leaving age; new schools, further education colleges, universities and teacher training colleges (as we called them back then); comprehensive schooling; the school guidance and promoted post system; the Consultative Committee on the Curriculum; the Open University. Lots of committees popped up, chaired by luminaries whose names trip easily off the tongue – Ruthven, Melville, Millar, Alexander, Pack, Munn and Dunning.

There was a touch of antiquity in how we did our business. A decade after TESS launched, I joined what was then an edition of the TES in England, printed on The Times’ presses in London. I had, literally, just come down from the Isle of Skye; I had been editing the local West Highland Free Press, which was relatively technologically advanced. At TESS, I discovered that copy was sent via telex machines, which could be operated only by union-approved staff doing shifts from their day jobs at The Scotsman and The Glasgow Herald. This infuriating arrangement was compounded by the fact that the telex could transmit only in capital letters: cue much time spent on the phone dealing with sub-editors’ queries about the spellings of Macleod, McLeod or MacLeod.

At the forefront of debate

Technology proved to be a battleground that figured in, and disfigured, the early days of TESS and its sister publications. The fact that we were printed on The Times’ presses meant we were caught up in frequent ferocious clashes between management and the print unions over modernising working practices. There were many weeks when TESS was not published at all. The battles eventually culminated in the Thomson management shutting down all its Fleet Street papers, including The Times and The Sunday Times, for a year in 1978-79. That did not resolve much and led directly to the sale of the business to Rupert Murdoch’s News International in 1981 (the third of six different owners TESS has had to date).

The technological and digital landscape within which we now operate could not be more different. But other issues have been ever-present. It did not take long for conflicts over devolution to appear and founding editor Colin MacLean quickly spotted its significance, organising what was the first major conference on the subject, starring the legendary founder of the Parti Québécois movement in Canada, René Lévesque. The issue has never gone away and we have never stopped reporting on its various incarnations.

The educational issues, too, have remained stubbornly familiar: curriculum, assessment, attainment, behaviour, teaching practice, school autonomy. Sometimes wheels have been reinvented. Who would have guessed that “regressive” fixed-stage national testing in primary and early secondary, introduced in the 1990s by controversial right-wing Conservative education minister Michael Forsyth, would be rebranded as “progressive” policy under the current SNP government?

But there have, of course, been major changes over the past half-century. The most significant of these is the much greater openness in all parts of the education system; there is no more “secret garden”, as the curriculum was once dubbed, and that can sometimes be uncomfortable for the gardeners. But it is difficult to believe now the predictions of dire consequences that accompanied the publication of school inspection reports in (appropriately) 1984.

Nowadays, organisations practically beg us to attend or give coverage to their events. However, it was not always so: the directors of education once told the editor we could not report on one of their early conferences, but they would be happy if we stood them a sherry reception. We declined.

A significant change in our history followed the sale of TESS – along with TES in England and the Times Higher Education Supplement – by News International in 2005. The Scottish staff succeeded in convincing our new management that we should become an all-Scottish newspaper, which took effect in November 2006. From there, it was a logical step for us to relaunch as a full-colour magazine to great acclaim in February 2011. The publishing world did not take long to recognise the boost in quality and we were named Scottish Magazine of the Year in 2012; staff and editors have been similarly honoured.

Here’s to another half-century

So what of the next 50 years? The education world of which we are a part – but from which we have to stand apart – is certainly not going to stay still. The Scottish Parliament has shown a tendency to legislate on everything that moves and, if anything, the revived mantra of “education, education, education” now espoused by the SNP and Labour is likely to reinforce the temptation. The danger is that, by 2065, we might end up with an even more centralised system than we currently have.

But countervailing forces are at work and more than one flower is blooming in the educational garden. For all the accusations of one-size-fits-all and focus on inputs that are levelled at Scottish education, there is a hunger to discover “what works” and therefore to prioritise outputs. Our recent report on Midlothian’s adoption of Visible Learning to boost attainment is an illustration of the quest, and plenty of initiatives are growing in other parts of the country. But for a thousand flowers to bloom, politicians have to learn to trust schools and teachers – even local authorities, if they are to continue as guardians of schools. And trust is a commodity that has been in short supply over the years.

Slow and steady wins the race

Teachers and their union leaders have more frequently been oppositional than accommodating when it comes to educational reform. This is not surprising, since one key message from the past 50 years is that lasting change cannot be effected or effective unless teachers are consulted and then convinced. That might make change painfully slow, but the alternative can cause equally painful events, such as the exam debacle of 2000 and the Higher Still upheaval that triggered it. In the past half-century, hardly any reforms have proceeded smoothly, with the possible exception of the Action Plan for 16- to 18-year-olds in the 1980s. Perhaps significantly, it was designed for colleges, not for schools.

Teachers are repeatedly urged to focus on pupils’ self-esteem, confidence, motivation, creativity and enterprise. Perhaps, by 2065, these qualities will be encouraged and evident in our teachers, too. Otherwise, debates will be hijacked by the negatives of league tables, international test scores and the rest.

So, during the next half-century, TESS will continue to play its part. We will aim to help Scottish education, in the words of Colin MacLean, “to see itself with greater clarity and to be itself with greater strength”.

Our milestones since 1965

1965 (17 September) TESS is launched, in the same year as the introduction of comprehensive schooling and the establishment of the world’s first General Teaching Council (in Scotland).

1975 TESS organises the first major conference on devolution, starring the charismatic founder of the Quebec independence movement, René Lévesque.

1978-79 TESS closes down for a year along with the rest of the Times newspapers, as its management engages in a bitter battle with print unions.

1981 TESS becomes part of News International after Rupert Murdoch buys the Times newspapers.

2005 TESS – along with its sister publications, TES in England and the Times Higher Education Supplement – is sold by News International to the first of three private equity companies to have owned us to date.

2006 TESS moves from being an edition of TES to a separate Scottish newspaper.

2011 TESS relaunches as a full-colour magazine.

2012 TESS is named Scottish Magazine of the Year; staff and editors are also honoured.

2015 TESS marks 50 years since it was first launched.

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