O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us o’ education

30th January 2015 at 00:00

Robert burns was lucky. Scotland’s bard, born 257 years ago this week, received an outstanding education, thanks largely to his father.

Burns was a farmer’s son, which in the 1760s tended to result in an education comprised solely of acquiring rudimentary agricultural skills. But William Burnes (sic) had other ideas and taught his children reading, writing, arithmetic, geography and history.

He and some neighbours in Alloway started a school, where they tutored young people in Latin, French and maths, and helped them delve into astronomy and theology. It was in this fertile period of learning that Burns encountered the poets and authors who would influence his own work, where he amassed the self-belief to tackle daunting tomes such as Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding.

The legacy is staggering: a body of work translated into more languages than any other poet from these islands other than Shakespeare; a song, Auld Lang Syne, which ushers in the hopefulness of a new year the world over; a man whose 37 years on the planet made him both the embodiment of Scottishness and a touchstone for universal values (“That Man to Man, the world o’er; Shall brothers be for a’ that”).

The importance of parental involvement in a child’s education is better understood in Scotland than ever. School, once largely a closed shop outside of parents’ night and concerts, are actively inviting parents to pitch in with their child’s learning (albeit actual governance is a more contested issue – as attested by the controversy around incipient plans for “state-funded autonomous schools”).

But parents’ contribution to learning is not just a bonus – it provides the foundations on which learning is built. And for some children they are rickety in the extreme.

Not every child has parents with the desire and ability to help them learn. Not every child is happy at home, and some are not even safe. Home may not be a platform to learning but a dead weight around it; parents like Robert Burns’ father are not a given for all children.

School, then, must be a powerful equalising force, where children are helped to drive their learning forward regardless of their home circumstances. Unfortunately, just as children’s lives at home vary enormously, big disparities are opening up at school.

Curricular change and a piecemeal approach to budget savings are variegating the school experience. Last week, we showed how the number of National qualifications that secondary students are taking varies widely around Scotland (“Half of schools make big cuts to courses under CfE”, 22 January); this week we hear that education directors fear the emergence of “unacceptable” differences in educational opportunities (pages 6-7).

Pupil support, educational psychology, school libraries, music tuition, extracurricular activities – all these and many more aspects of school life are being chipped away at to varying degrees. A child’s experience in Dunoon, Dundee and Dunbar may end up being very different to that of their peers in Kirkwall, Kirkcaldy and Kirkcudbright.

That’s the stark prospect for Scottish education as it faces a blizzard of cuts in coming years. Any one of these services has the potential to spark a child’s interest and ability to learn, and ultimately to transform their lives. But in some parts of country they will receive that help – in others, they won’t.

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