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Where we stand as Holyrood dawns;Platform;Opinion

Tom Bryce and Walter Humes introduce the new policy-makers to a state of the nation guide to education

The publication of Scottish Education represents the culmination of more than three years of planning, negotiating, writing and editing. When we conceived of the project our aim was to produce a comprehensive and definitive text covering all sectors of the Scottish system - pre-school, primary, secondary, further, higher, adult.

Our thinking was influenced both by the approach of the millennium and by the creation of a Scottish parliament with education as one of its main priorities. We wanted to provide a "state of the nation" account at this important historical juncture.

The scale of the project can be indicated by the fact that the published volume is more than 1,000 pages long, with the text extending to some 500,000 words. There are 112 chapters written by 120 contributors (some chapters are co-written).

Separate sections deal with policy, administration, post-school education, assessment, teacher education and the historical, cultural and economic context. A particular feature is the extensive treatment of curricular issues, with detailed coverage of all the subjects taught in primary and secondary schools.

Our hope is that this comprehensiveness will ensure that Scottish Education proves an invaluable source for students, teachers, managers and officials as well as researchers and academics from the UK and overseas.

At an early stage, and before we drew up detailed specifications for all of the chapters, we sought the advice of six consultants who possessed a wealth of varied expertise. Their response encouraged us to proceed though they also alerted us to some of the dangers of such an ambitious undertaking.

One piece of advice for which we were subsequently very grateful was the recommendation not to attempt all of the editing ourselves but to work in partnership with section editors. Sue Kleinberg, Brian Boyd and John Halliday of Strathclyde University, Malcolm MacKenzie and Colin Holroyd of Glasgow University, Lindsay Paterson of Edinburgh University and Mary Simpson of Northern College (Aberdeen), have all made a major contribution.

We were also aided by the secretarial support at Strathclyde University, made possible by a generous grant from the Carnegie Trust. This grant also contributed towards the production costs.

Where necessary, we employed a judicious mixture of persuasion, pleading, bullying and, of course, charm. Only one of those originally commissioned let us down completely and we were very fortunate in obtaining the services of a distinguished replacement who produced an excellent chapter at short notice.

Inevitably, some material will date. But contributors were urged to identify issues that are likely to be on the agenda for some time. In any case, we wanted to produce a critical interpretation of the defining characteristics of Scottish education at the end of the 20th century, to which future commentators could refer as a major source of information and analysis.

The detailed specifications for each chapter provided the basic framework but a number of chapters went through several drafts. The writing of the specifications also aided in identifying areas of possible overlap between chapters and ensuring that cross-references were helpful to the reader.

Viewing the volume as a whole, we have tried to provide a balance between "insider" and "outsider" perspectives. Some aspects of the workings of Scottish education require detailed "insider" knowledge by people who occupy senior positions. The disadvantage is that they may be inclined to take an "establishment" view of what happens and may be unwilling to acknowledge areas of weakness.

Thus we have sought to balance the "insider" chapters with those written from a more detached standpoint by "outsiders" from a research and academic background. The latter can provide the critical edge to a topic on which genuine debate depends. We hope that our own chapters on policy-making, secondary education, assessment, the Scottish educational tradition and the future of Scottish education possess something of this quality.

We ourselves have certainly learnt a great deal through our involvement in the project and our contacts with people working throughout the Scottish system. At times the pressures were considerable as we sought to juggle the demands of our "day jobs" with the need to respond quickly to a request from the publishers or an enquiry from a contributor or section editor.

We predicted from the outset that our own relationship might become strained. That has not happened and we would attribute it to two things: an absolute determination to see the project through and an appreciation of the value of a sense of humour when things don't work out quite as planned. There were many laughs on the way, albeit occasionally of the hysterical variety.

It will be for others to judge how successful we have been. In retrospect we are certainly conscious of areas where our coverage might have been fuller: for example, training schemes which take place outside the formal system, reflecting a loss of faith by some employers in paper qualifications.

There is always scope for further research. But if readers come to regard our book as a useful work of reference covering mainstream educational practice and professional thinking, we will be well satisfied.

* Scottish Education, edited by T G K Bryce and W M Humes, is published today (Friday) by Edinburgh University Press, price pound;24.99.

Professor Tom Bryce is a vice-dean of the Faculty of Education at Strathclyde University. Dr Walter Humes is head of the Department of Educational Studies at Glasgow University.

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