After the election of the sixth Scottish Parliament three weeks ago, I would argue that there are two pressing questions which will confront both parliamentarians and public alike in the years to come: can the much-lamented decline in the quality and efficacy of Scottish education be reversed; and how can we best ensure that we are capable of reaching an informed and measured decision about our country's constitutional future?
Since the introduction of modern studies into the Scottish school curriculum over 60 years ago, it could be argued that Scotland has tried to address these two questions simultaneously. Whilst Scottish politics today is considerably more turbulent and highly charged than it was when the first modern studies syllabus for Ordinary Grade was published in 1959, its founding purpose – to enable Scottish pupils to 'interpret and participate in the social and political processes they will encounter in their lives' – remains as important in the third decade of the 21st century as it was in the middle of the 20th.
As someone who was educated down south, I am often struck by both the richness and sheer variety of today's modern studies curriculum, which combines history, politics, geography and sociology. Whilst it was once thought, back in the early days, that modern studies was not as demanding or 'forbidding' as traditional humanities subjects – initially being offered to less academically-minded students as an alternative to history or geography (the first Higher examination did not come until 1968) – it is now one of Scotland's most rigorous and wide-ranging curricular programmes, with over 270 secondary schools possessing at least one full-time modern studies teacher.
It is hard to believe that the subject was seen as being a 'softer' option when the first Ordinary Grade examination in 1962 asked candidates to 'Write notes on… Karl Marx and modern Communism'—something which might appear in degree-level examinations. Even at National 5 today, candidates can study representation and decision-making in both Scotland and the UK, lobbying and electoral participation, the reach and scale of extreme poverty and social inequality, the causes and consequences of crime and the nature and exercise of world power. At Higher level, candidates are tasked with answering two exam papers (totalling some three hours) and conducting substantial original research on an issue of their choice, using their findings to identify 'alternative views' and reach a conclusion on those differences of opinion.
In the 1970s, when the reorganisation of local government and the creation of a Scottish Assembly were the greatest sea-changes in Scottish politics, Higher students in 1977 were asked to evaluate why Scottish MPs were divided on the issue of devolution and how Westminster 'controls' local authorities. Later sections asked these 16- to 18-year-olds to account for the varying rates of unemployment around Scotland, survey the main causes of inflation, assess the aims of the EEC's Common Agricultural Policy and even forecast how computerisation would impact both 'personal privacy' and 'criminal investigations'. Topics of study also included the Middle East, China, the USSR, the Cold War, apartheid in South Africa and race issues in the USA, although it is interesting to note that the Troubles in Northern Ireland were specifically kept out of the modern studies syllabus.
In 1979 – as Scotland went to the polls on 1 March to determine whether to establish a Scottish Assembly, before deciding the Callaghan Government's fate on 3 May – candidates opening Section B of Paper 1 were confronted with questions on the distinctiveness of the Highlands and Islands, Labour and the Tories' approach to constitutional change, as well as a two-parter on the movement of goods and services and the factors which attracted modern manufacturing industries to the Midlands or south-east of England.
As the Scottish Qualification Authority (SQA) argues, modern studies teaches young Scots how to develop 'a structured approach to the study of contemporary issues and problems', evaluate evidence and detect a lack of objectivity and construct and sustain an argument which mirrors 'the complexity of the issues they address'. In addition to passing on the skills necessary to analyse, critique and synthesise information, modern studies also gives Scottish students a grounding in the most pressing issues and events of our times, informing them about Scotland and the wider world, in an age when developing transferable skills often takes precedence over acquiring new knowledge.
It might also be argued that the teaching and learning approaches which developed in modern studies from its introduction in the 1960s were ahead of their time and possible precursors to many of the claims made with Curriculum for Excellence: research, analysis and evaluation skills; resource-based learning; the use of audio-visual resources; active engagement of students in their learning; and the later introduction of a Special Study Report of the candidate's choice at Ordinary Grade to broaden assessment beyond examination only.
Despite the success of modern studies in increasing the awareness of generations of Scots of the 'social and political environment' around them, it could be argued that far too many remain unversed in the way our country is governed. Whilst every system of governance has its anomalies and misunderstandings, recent years have seen a worryingly high level of televised vox pops whose participants explain, for example, their fervent desire to vote for the SNP at a UK General Election in protest at Scotland's schools 'going down the pan', even though education is a devolved matter and has been run by an SNP administration since 2007.
As Scots grapple with a highly-charged and increasingly turbulent political landscape, I think our politics would be more harmonious had more of us had the modern studies treatment in our formative years. Its unique nature as a subject, representing the best of an education system which some Scots often claim was once the best in the world, ensures that – as Bernard Crick and Alex Porter once said of education, in general – its participants 'can understand and respect', while not necessarily share, 'the values of others'.
In the years of this parliament to come, it is to be expected that our political literacy will be tested by the complexities of 'devo-max' compared to the merits of status quo or independence. However, modern studies and the wide range of citizenship programmes offered by Scottish schools today provide hope for the future that Scotland will have a more politically-informed and self-confident electorate than ever before, instructed in the mechanics of our democracy and cherishing open-mindedness and tolerance – both of which remain in short supply in Britain's public life in 2021.
Tom Chidwick is a contemporary historian, who splits his time between London and Edinburgh. He is currently writing a history of the 1979 referendum on the creation of a Scottish Assembly