The present generation of educational leaders in Scotland has a poor sense of the nation’s educational history.
They suffer from what the late G. H. Bantock called ‘the parochialism of the present’, a condition that focuses on current preoccupations alone and fails to consider what might be learned from past experience.
The failure is hardly surprising since the study of history of education has been progressively eliminated from the courses that aspiring teachers are required to undergo. Some of the damaging consequences of this gap in professional understanding can be seen in the uneven progress of Scotland’s flagship educational policy since 2004, Curriculum for Excellence.
Curriculum for Excellence (CfE)
CfE was ambitious in scope, covering the full age range from three to eighteen. It started as a broad statement of principles, which were elaborated in the years that followed. Its key features were an increased emphasis on generic skills at the expense of formal knowledge; ‘progressive’ pedagogy, placing the learner centre-stage; an account of the learning process in terms of ‘experiences’ and ‘outcomes’; an aspiration that classroom teachers would become curriculum developers and change agents; above all, a desire to promote four ‘capacities’ (successful learners, confident individuals, effective contributors, responsible citizens). This last point suggested that learning was more about ‘becoming’ than ‘knowing’.
Implementation of CfE has not been straightforward. Although there was broad support for the rhetoric of reform, when it came to the details and practicalities there were many problems. Some ideas, such as ‘active’ and ‘interdisciplinary’ learning, were criticised as vague. The quality of programmes of professional development for teachers, intended to prepare for the changes, did not inspire confidence. New national qualifications to accompany the curricular reform met with resistance from teachers.
Concern about a perceived decline in standards, provoked by national and international surveys, led to questions about the intellectual foundations of CfE, as well as the effectiveness of its management. But there has never been any prospect of the programme being abandoned. Too many political and professional reputations depend on it.
Learning from the past
If those responsible for directing the reform had paid a little more attention to the lessons of educational history, things might have been different. Previous reforms, more modest in scale, had all encountered difficulties and had taken longer to implement than had been hoped. This was true of Standard Grade, 5-14 and Higher Still in the period preceding devolution. Moreover, these programmes had been steered by strong central direction, in which the scope for teacher involvement had been limited. One of the professed aims of CfE was to ‘empower’ teachers, giving them greater scope to demonstrate ‘agency’. Expecting them to adopt a new ‘liberated’ mindset, after decades of being required to follow directives, was always going to be a big ask. For successful implementation of CfE, a complete change of approach was required.
Evidence of the extent of this challenge was to hand, but was ignored by the policy makers. In 1975 Lawrence Stenhouse, a former Head of Education at Jordanhill College in Glasgow, published a ground-breaking book, An Introduction to Curriculum Research and Development. It offered many insights into the requirements for effective reform programmes. At the heart of his argument was the belief that there can be no successful curriculum development without teacher development. In other words, simply introducing a new policy, without proper regard for the readiness of teachers to make it work, is likely to lead to disappointment. Furthermore, winning hearts and minds, and inspiring trust, are essential requirements of effective innovation. These conditions were not met in the early stages of the CfE reform programme.
Stenhouse emphasised the importance of teachers being willing and able to take the initiative in determining their own professional development rather than simply responding to top-down exhortations. He wrote: ‘the outstanding characteristic of the extended professional is a capacity for autonomous professional self-development through systematic self-study, through the study of the work of other teachers and through the testing of ideas by classroom research procedures’.
The importance of this last point was recognised as early as the 1920s when William Boyd, Head of the Education Department at Glasgow University, initiated a series of research studies with classroom teachers, supported by the Educational Institute of Scotland. It was not until 2014 that the value of professional enquiry was given official recognition by the General Teaching Council for Scotland with the introduction of its Professional Update scheme, though it was constrained by various mechanisms of approval.
Belated glimmers of awareness
Some ten years after the start of CfE, Graham Donaldson, formerly Her Majesty’s Senior Chief Inspector of Schools in Scotland, published an article in which he acknowledged that ‘attempts to reform education . . . have proved remarkably resistant to external pressure to change’. He quoted Mark Priestley of Stirling University who stated that: ‘it is one thing for policy to frame teachers as agents of change. It is quite another to enable this to actually happen’.
Belatedly, the Scottish Government has attempted to address the gap between the aspiration to be ‘world class’ and the reality of where we currently are. One initiative was the appointment of an International Council of Educational Advisers which produced a report in 2018. Among its key recommendations were a focus on ‘professional empowerment, responsibility and ownership’ and the need for ‘capacity building’ at all levels. It also suggested that, while Scottish education had undoubted strengths, significant improvement in the future would depend on ‘deep and lasting cultural change’.
Is Scottish education capable of rising to this challenge? Many teachers remain sceptical of the encouragement to make their voices heard. A recent article in the Times Educational Supplement Scotland reported that expressing views that may not accord with official policy carried significant risks: it was even suggested that a climate of fear prevails in some schools and local authorities. This may help to explain why it has not been easy to recruit and retain new teachers, or to attract high calibre candidates for head teacher posts.
Structural changes at national level have done little to persuade sceptics that we have entered a new era of open dialogue and free intellectual exchange. When John Swinney brought forward proposals for new governance arrangements in 2016, there was a widespread expectation that ‘something would be done’ about Education Scotland, the main body responsible for some of the problems associated with CfE. Something was done, but not what was expected. Far from being restricted in its sphere of operations, it was given a wider remit, covering not only the curriculum and school inspection, but also the work of the Scottish College for Educational Leadership. The close links between Education Scotland’s senior officers and Scottish Government officials give little indication of significant cultural change at the top. Consolidating the administrative machinery always seems to be preferred over tough-minded intellectual scrutiny.
Scots tend to have a rather complacent self-image of themselves as frank and forthright, willing to express critical opinions. Official Scotland, however, remains deeply conformist and oppressively bureaucratic. In the professions, ambitious people soon learn to defer to authority, acquire the approved discourse, and observe the unwritten rules. One consequence is that many of those who reach senior positions get there not because of marked intellectual ability or a track record of creativity and innovation, but simply because they have become skilled at playing the ‘political’ game. It is hardly a recipe for producing a ‘world class’ educational system.
Revisiting our educational history might encourage us to question some of the prevailing orthodoxies of our time. The dominant ethos of the education system in the recent past can be traced to the style of early Secretaries of the Scottish Education Department, most notably Sir Henry Craik, who was in office from 1885-1904. By all accounts, he was an able administrator but also, in the words of T. R. Bone, ‘typical of senior civil servants of his day, punctiliously correct at all times, aloof, authoritarian, and ruthless when necessary’.
Craik’s unchallenged authority can be contrasted with the treatment of other figures in the history of Scottish education, whose contributions, like those of Stenhouse and Boyd, have been insufficiently recognised – Patrick Geddes (1954-1932), Margaret McMillan (1860-1931), A. S. Neill (1883-1973) and R. F. Mackenzie (1910-1987). Their reception reveals a great deal about attitudes to dissent in Scottish education. Geddes was marginalised in his own country but gained an international reputation. Both MacMillan and Neill had to pursue their educational ideals in England rather than Scotland. And Mackenzie‘s pioneering approach to the teaching of ‘disenchanted’ youngsters led to his dismissal as head teacher of Summerhill comprehensive school in Aberdeen. Perhaps we should ask why there are no comparable radical voices in Scottish education today.
Main image: John Swinney delivering Read, Write, Count bags via Scottish Government Flickr