In A Century of the Scottish People 1830-1950, the historian T. C. Smout offers this disturbing observation:
Perhaps . . . it is in the history of the school more than in any other aspect of recent social history that the key lies to some of the more depressing aspects of modern Scotland. If there are in this country too many people who fear what is new, believe the difficult to be impossible, draw back from responsibility, and afford established authority an exaggerated respect, we can reasonably look for an explanation in the institutions that moulded them.
This was written in 1986 and it might be claimed that in post-devolution Scotland the climate has changed significantly, with growing national self-confidence within a new political landscape. I want to argue, however, that in an important respect Smout’s analysis remains valid. Modern Scotland, both before and after devolution, emerges as a country that is more committed to bureaucracy than democracy.
To make this case, it is first necessary to go back to the post-war period. Until 1965, Scottish secondary education was bipartite in character. The minority of children who ‘passed’ the ‘qualifying’ examination at the end of primary school went on to a five-year course in senior secondary schools leading to national examinations. Those who ‘failed’ were sent to junior secondaries offering three-year courses with no nationally-recognised qualifications at the end. The system was seriously flawed in various ways but it did provide a route to social mobility for able and aspiring working-class pupils. Their parents, many of whom had experienced hardship in the 1920s and 30s, wanted their sons and daughters to obtain secure jobs with prospects, preferably with a pension at the end.
A decidedly cynical view on the process was expressed by the radical educator, A.S. Neill, when he wrote that the political establishment ‘very cleverly selects the brighter children of the proletariat, sends them to secondary schools and then to university, thus taking them away from the class to which they belong and for which they might conceivably fight’.
The post-war period coincided with the expansion of the welfare state so there were job opportunities in central and local government, in teaching and the health service, and in public bodies of various kinds. These occupations were attractive not only because they offered security but also because they were seen as fulfilling important social functions. But the way in which they were run was essentially bureaucratic in character. Bureaucracies have certain key characteristics: they are formal and impersonal, depending on hierarchical structures and prescribed rules; their authority derives from expert knowledge, the control of which is jealously guarded; over time, they seek to extend their territorial reach; they encourage conformity to the prevailing institutional culture; when problems arise, measures are taken to protect the ‘integrity’ of the bureaucracy and the reputations of those who hold senior office. It is a system that too often rewards the mediocre and marginalises the talented.
After 1965, the divide between senior and junior secondary schools was ended, with the introduction of the comprehensive system. By then, however, the bureaucratic mindset had become well-established and its tentacles continued to spread. In education, the 1960s was the decade in which the General Teaching Council was established and national curriculum and examination bodies were set up (the forerunners of Education Scotland and the Scottish Qualifications Authority). All of these organisations are highly bureaucratic in their internal operations and notably deferential in their attitude to government. Any ‘free spirits’ quickly find that their contributions are viewed with disapproval.
The consequences of all this on the quality of democratic debate are damaging. A form of ‘groupthink’ develops which discourages critical questioning of official policies. The language of public exchanges becomes narrow and prescriptive. Presentation is regarded as more important than substance. And the effect on individuals is psychologically damaging.
In the brilliant comic novel, A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole, the central character, Ignatius J. Reilly, remarks: ‘You can always tell someone who works for the government by the total vacancy which occupies the space where most other people have faces.’ This is not so much a comment on the intelligence of public officials as on the fact that, by submitting so readily to the constraints of the institutions in which they work, they lose their identity as individuals. They become mere ciphers of the state, having sold their souls for minor office (and a pension).
Has this picture changed much in the post-devolution period when we were promised a brave new world of transparency and greater accountability? Look at the evidence. When public organisations such as the NHS, Police Scotland, the Crown Office or local authorities fall short of the standards they purport to represent, what happens? A depressingly familiar pattern of delay, evasion and cover-up takes place. Rarely is any individual held responsible. Where enquiries are conducted, their independence is questioned. Members of the public often doubt the fairness and impartiality of so-called ‘regulatory’ bodies. At the same time, with no sense of inconsistency, officials boast that strenuous efforts are being made to reduce bureaucracy in education and other public services. The journalist and former politician Brian Wilson recently referred to ‘the stultifying bureaucracy and risk aversion which afflicts every public body in Scotland as the centralised grip has tightened’.
A healthy democracy requires a wide range of public and private bodies with different aims and values. We do not currently have this in Scotland. Too much decision-making takes the form of cosy consensus among powerful players who all employ the same type of self-congratulatory discourse. They see no contradiction between the managerial style of their institutions and their routine appeals to a sanitised, and unconvincing, version of the Scottish ‘democratic’ tradition.
A glimmer of hope
It is important not to be too downcast by this gloomy scene. Just occasionally, a shaft of sunlight can penetrate the clouds. I recently had the pleasure of taking part in a wonderful conference on Scottish education. It featured many classroom teachers reporting on innovative work in schools, constructive ideas on how to improve the curriculum, and input from writers and researchers on new thinking in psychology and professional development. Comments afterwards on social networking sites were uniformly positive. What was striking, however, was that the event had not been organised by the usual suspects – the Scottish Government, Education Scotland, the Scottish Qualifications Authority or the General Teaching Council. The dead hand of officialdom was absent from the proceedings. We need to take heart from such sites of resistance and beacons of hope. Could we even be seeing the beginnings of a revolution from below?
florian albert says
‘Could we even be seeing the beginnings of a revolution from below ?’
Sadly, the answer to that is – almost certainly – no.
The real problem is that the status quo benefits so many people. In particular, the well off are quite happy with it.
In terms of schooling, decision makers send their children to private schools or to those comprehensives which all but guarantee that their children will have a good chance of getting – not merely to university but to the better faculties. They can, of course, afford the price premium which allows them to buy access to such a school.
One of the most noticeable things about the political left in Scotland is the eagerness with which it supports this state of affairs.
Walter Humes says
Thanks for your comment. I agree that those who enjoy bureaucratic power will not give it up willingly (despite all their assurances about ’empowering’ teachers to take ‘ownership’ of educational reforms). Any movement must come from below. I admit it is not easy as the educational system remains extremely hierarchical (just look at the culture of local government). But real change always involves risk and already some staff are beginning to speak out (e.g. the primary teacher who recently wrote an open letter to John Swinney). Small beginnings – but who knows where they might lead?
Paul Cochrane says
The revolution from below!
Aux barricades mes amis!
Yes – Researched was brilliant. Didn’t get to see everything that I wanted to but your talk was excellent!
Walter Humes says
Thanks Paul. It was good to meet you at the conference. I was encouraged by how many people remain positive about Scottish education, despite the current difficulties, many of which are caused by those who represent ‘the dead hand of officialdom’. The latter fondly imagine they are offering solutions, when in fact they are a major part of the problem.
Pat Baillie says
Can you give me details about that conference? I am retired Infant teacher interested in current professional development for early years (P1 -P3) particularly how to teach children how to read. I followed your articles in the Scottish Review but have only now rediscovered you in Sceptical Scot.
Walter Humes says
I’m sorry for the delay in replying but I have only just noticed your comment (January 20). I hope this reaches you. You can find out more about ResearchED by doing a Google search on the name (note capitals), It is now an international organisation which holds several conferences each year in different locations. It was founded in 2013 by Tom Bennett as a grass roots organisation enabling teachers to report on projects and research that they have found useful in their work. It is very different from the usual ‘top down’ approach favoured by educational administrators. The event I attended at Dollar Academy had lots of interesting presentations by teachers working in very different contexts, as well as keynote addresses by writers and academics. Given the constraints on local authority budgets, traditional forms of CPD are unlikely to be sustained, thus opening up the possibility of teachers taking more control of their own development, sharing ideas and experiences with other practitioners. I no longer write for Scottish Review but hope to submit some more articles to Sceptical Scot. Good luck with your own work – developing confidence in reading is the key to later educational progress.
Pat Baillie says
Thank you for your reply. I will check out ResearchED. Look forward to more of your articles in Sceptical Scot – shining a light into dark corners!