A lifetime of buying books now means that I can hardly move for bookcases. Even the hallway and the kitchen have been pressed into service to house a mound of books, mostly unread for many years. It was time to clear out all the old material and reduce the collection to manageable limits. Three hours later, I had managed to put aside six books I could do without. At that rate of progress, it was going to take all the waking hours I have remaining to me to significantly reduce the load on the bookcases. But the trawl through the older titles turned up some interesting observations.
Here was the Edinburgh Review,
Number 73, in 1986, which devoted most of the magazine to 'Scottish Education in Crisis'. There were a number of contributors from the then current educational scene. In a piece entitled Aims and Objectives
, Eddie Dick considers the establishment of media studies as an important breakthrough in challenging the rigid framework of the Munn report which, following the notions of the educational philosopher Paul Hurst, cast the curriculum into various supposedly separate 'modes of knowing'.
In parts of the UK, we still have the 11 plus examination, based on the work of Cyril Burt. In England, schools are being gradually privatised with the responsibility for their operation being determined by donors. It is ironic that just as Sir Ken Robinson has argued that schools need to reform their 'industrial' mode of operation, an entire system is passing into the hands of industrialists. At least in Scotland we have moved beyond that disastrous division of children at such an early age. But Hurst's modes of knowing, though having little validity, are still alive and well in many S3 choice sheets.
Particularly interesting is Dick's initial preface to his article where he refers to The Leadership Class in Scottish Education
by Walter Humes, which examines the ruling echelons in the educational establishment. Dick hopes that the book will 'shift and expand the register and shape of educational discourse in Scotland'. In a later comment, Humes notes: 'But while it is tempting to elaborate on possible reforms (to the educational establishment) it would be premature to do so. Any programme of reconstruction, if it is to be effective, must be based on a thorough analysis and understanding of the underlying political and cultural causes of Scotland's educational malaise'.
Although coming at the subject from a different perspective, Seymour Sarason in his book, The Predictable Failure of Educational Reform
, argues persuasively that not much will change until we address the power relations between student and teacher, between teacher and headteacher, and between headteacher and local authority.
But here I am, 35 years later, glancing though the pages of the magazine, wondering if we have seen any real change in the power relationships in the educational establishment. To this day, Humes' book is still referred to in discussion, showing that his hope of possible reforms are still to be realised. I have written before about how misleading it is to cast headteachers or teachers as 'leaders'. If anything, they are 'followers' of central regulation and local authority prescription. Woe betide anyone, headteacher or teacher, who speaks to the press about yet another doubtful decision of authority (and the fact we call it 'authority' says it all). But then, maybe Scottish education is always in a state of crisis?
The rediscovered booklet, Factsheet 15 Scottish Education
(1989), may put me in a better frame of mind. The front cover displays a picture which is clearly meant to convey the essence of Scottish education. Is it a picture of smiling young people or of some newly opened school? No, it is a picture of an examination room with supervisors handing out papers to students sitting with their heads down, clearly in expectation of the ordeal to come.
It seems that formal examinations are so rooted in the Scottish educational psyche that it will take an educational earthquake to shift. But hasn't the last year been such an earthquake? The Covid epidemic has demonstrated a number of things. The manipulation of results by the SQA was brought out into the open. Examination boards have been redistributing and normalising results for many years, but it has always been behind closed doors. This secrecy leads parents and students to think that there is something absolute about the grades awarded. This is simply not true. And last year showed that it was possible to use a different method to allocate grades. It was done in a rush and was far from perfect but it showed what was possible.
I can remember the operation of CSE Mode 3, where teachers were encouraged to create programmes relevant to their students, who were then assessed by the teacher with moderation by a teacher from another school. The announcement that we are to return to the old pattern of formal examinations next year is probably the most egregious failure to exploit an opportunity that we have seen in recent times.
And here is my battered copy of the Report of the Advisory Council on Education in Scotland
, published in 1947. We might think it's unlikely that we will learn much from something written so long ago, but let's see. The report starts by defining the aim of education. It is that 'the chief end of education is to foster the full and harmonious development of the individual', recognising that 'selves can only develop in accordance with their own nature and that their nature is social'.
Some commentators seem to suggest that children have stopped learning during the school closures. This is nonsense. Children are learning all the time. What may have been lost is preparation for the next test. Given the redundancy in the secondary system, it is likely this can be quickly overcome. But what has been lost, and will take much longer to heal, is the lack of social contact in this period.
The report continues: 'Education thus presents itself as at once preparation for life and an irreplaceable part of life itself; hence the good school is to be assessed not by any tale of examination successes, however impressive, but by the extent to which it has filled the years of youth with security, graciousness and ordered freedom, and has thus been a seed-bed for the flowering in due season of all that is of good report'.
Goodness, why does this seem like revolutionary talk? Today's inspectors and quality assurance officers might object that 'ethos' is to the fore in their assessment of a school but such assertions ring hollow against the research which shows that secondary students now overwhelmingly regard school in instrumental terms. Examinations are all that really matter. And what of social contact? Presently, most of it is informal, casual and rarely part of the school's structured time. What would be the consequence of responding to the social nature of the self? I hesitate to go back over ground I have covered in previous articles, but essentially we need groupings in secondary schools based on social units, not on the usual progression by year group.
Could there be more in the report? It goes on to consider the curriculum. 'It is our conviction that the greatest need of Scottish education is for initiative, variety, experiment, and that many things (and these most vital) can rightly be determined only within that living relationship of teacher and taught, which the whole machinery of schools, administration and councils exists solely to promote'. My only comment? It would be wonderful if this was so.
David Eastwood is Emeritus Senior Lecturer at the Department of Education, Aberdeen University