Historically, Scotland's education system has prided itself on two key principles: maintaining fair access and equality of opportunity. That was until, perhaps, two weeks ago and the initial release of the 2020 Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) results following the cancellation of this year's examination diet due to the COVID-19 pandemic. When the SQA results were made public a fortnight ago, it unleashed a deafening chorus of outrage from parents, students and teachers from across Scotland and prompted a drastic climbdown by John Swinney, who announced last Tuesday that downgraded results would be written off in favour of those given by teachers.
Of the 133,000 teacher judgements which the SQA's initial moderation process saw altered, 93% were adjusted downwards, with the majority of those affected being pupils attending schools in more deprived communities. As Jack McConnell highlights, whilst in August 2000, when tens of thousands received the wrong results or none whatsoever, 'the chaos was indiscriminate' and 'affected students no matter their postcode', this year's fiasco was 'targeted and deliberate'.
As thousands of unhappy souls across Scotland lamented downgraded results and future opportunities which looked to be slipping away, Erin Bleakley, a highly impressive 17-year-old from the East End of Glasgow, asserted that 'our postcode does not define us'. For Bleakley, and many other affected students, 'where we are from does [and should] not matter' when you are 'trying your best' to succeed.
Romantic Scots often salute the supposed superiority of the Scottish education system over its English cousin down south. However, the SQA's most recent debacle has brought the polarisation between affluent schools in the leafy suburbs and those in areas recognised to be serving areas of poverty into sharp focus, and suggests that a strong injustice now permeates Scottish schooling.
At the heart of this godawful mess, was the decision to disregard the professional judgement of teachers, in favour of a system which punished pupils for attending historically 'underperforming' schools serving 'disadvantaged' communities, where levels of attainment have tended to be lower. For many Scots, the notion that there are substantial differences in the social status of our schools is an intolerable one which strikes at the collectivist values which run through our sense of ourselves. Where England still maintains grammar schools, since October 1965 – when the Scottish Education Department issued 'Circular 600' to end academic selection, instructing local authorities to 'further the reorganisation of secondary schooling in Scotland on comprehensive lines' – Scottish schools have been resolutely comprehensive, providing opportunity for all based on merit rather than social status.
Whilst the Scottish Government's stated top priority is to close the 'poverty-related attainment gap', from what we have seen over the last two weeks, it is clear that little progress has been made in giving 'underperforming' schools a leg-up. Whereas today many young Scots are suffering from attending 'underperforming' schools, it could be argued that, prior to the introduction of the Parents' Charter in 1981, which allowed parents to express a preference which school their child would attend, schools across the country were more socially balanced and comprehensive in their intakes. Many schools which are now deemed to be 'deprived' were once large and socially-mixed, operating without stigma within the mainstream of Scottish education.
Whilst the introduction of comprehensive schools was intended to provide equal opportunities for all, the roots of this egalitarianism was already evident in the era of academic selection. In the post-war period, many parts of Scotland had schools which operated within the selective system but still kept all young people from local areas together, in 'omnibus' or 'multilateral' schools. Whilst selection in the country's cities and larger towns operated mainly through the segregation of young people of different 'abilities' in separate senior and junior secondary schools, omnibus schools educated all local children, regardless of their ability, but allocated them into different 'pathways' depending on how they had performed in the 'Qualifying Examination' at the end of primary school. In these schools, those who had passed the 'Qualy' typically took longer courses which led to Highers in S5, while those who had scored lower in the transition test followed mainly three-year, non-certificate courses, until the age of 15.
With pupils on separate tracks from the start of S1, the multilateral schools did not always provide the equality of opportunity that the later comprehensives promised. However, all their pupils were part of the same school ethos and, critically, were taught by the same teachers. Whilst secondary-moderns in England and junior-secondaries in Scotland were often burdened with weaker staff, better-qualified teachers were often attracted to the multilaterals and would teach all of their pupils, regardless of which track they were following. Although pupils may have been following different pathways, they shared the same broader school experiences that can define a young person's education – with all of the friends they had grown up with. From playing in sports teams to taking part in school productions and joining school excursions, pupils from across the school were involved and included as equals.
Whilst some might argue that the multilateral system had little material difference from dividing the sheep and the goats into senior and junior secondaries, the system's most powerful legacy is the effect that it had on the self-esteem of the pupils who passed through the doors of omnibus schools across Scotland. Unlike what we have seen in recent days, pupils from poorer backgrounds attending these schools did not feel 'defined by their postcodes'.
In a sense, omnibus schools, like Govan High School, Grove Academy in Broughty Ferry, Kirkcaldy High School (Gordon Brown's alma mater) and Musselburgh Grammar School, five miles to the east of Edinburgh, were the gateway between the wholly selective system and comprehensive schooling north of the border. Whilst multilateral schools were also established by some Labour councils in England, cropping up in Middlesex, London and North Riding, as well as Anglesey in North Wales, they were considerably more prevalent in Scotland and highlight the importance of collectivism to Scotland's national life.
Regardless of the specificities of the teaching that it has provided at different moments in its recent past, the education system north of the border has always been a potent symbol of Scots' sense of themselves. During the centuries prior to the establishment of the Scottish Parliament in 1999, education became a way for Scots to preserve a sense of nationhood without, as Sir Tom Devine puts it, 'in any way threatening the basic structure of the union with England'. For many, the importance of the meritocratic streak which runs through the entirety of Scotland's sense of itself is evident in the fact that the country's continued ability to produce the 'lad o' pairts', the clever young Scot who has achieved success despite lowly origins, remains the benchmark for its education system today.
As the Scottish Parliament celebrated the 20th anniversary of its founding last year, it was abundantly clear that it is now the undisputed centre of Scotland's public life. At its heart, in the centre of the Chamber, just below the Presiding Officer's desk, resides the ceremonial mace. Presented by Her Majesty the Queen, and cast by Michael Lloyd, the mace is both a symbol of the parliament's authority – of its status, as Donald Dewar famously declared, as a 'new voice in the land' – but also as a statement of its guiding principles and the ideals it holds dear: 'Wisdom, Justice, Compassion and Integrity'.
In 1999, and again at its 20th birthday last year, the parliament has marked significant occasions with Sheena Wellington's spirited renditions of Robert Burns' A Man's A Man for A' That
. Burns' simple egalitarianism is particularly poignant to today's debacle, given that the organisation at the heart of the 2020 examination debacle, the SQA, even adopted the poet's judgement that true merit should be judged upon the 'pith o' sense an' pride o' worth'. For those who take pride in the fact that Scotland's schooling has traditionally prided merit above all else, the initial judgement of the SQA in 2020 suggested that, in many cases, where people go to school is more important than their own abilities to their future success.
In a nation which believes that all of us are of equal value to humankind, and that everyone deserves a fair crack of the whip, the initial SQA results issued this year, which could have severely damaged the life chances of thousands of young Scots, cut to the very heart of what it means to be Scottish in 2020. Thankfully, 'pride o' worth' and 'A Man's A Man' have, albeit belatedly, finally come good this year, although it does raise the question of whether the Class of 2020 will share a sense of pride in the quality of their education in half a century's time.