Today’s education shapes tomorrow’s society. What then, does the current shape of Scottish education tell us about the Scotland of the future, regardless of what constitutional future the nation chooses next September?
Will it be a Scotland where every individual has the capacity and the skills to be the best they can be, or will it be much the same as now where too many lack the capabilities to fully realise their potential?
It may be an unexpected consequence of the constitutional debate, but whatever the cause, just now there seems to be an unusual upwelling of ideas for how all of education, from primary through to higher and further levels, might be adapted to better meet the needs of today’s young and the demands and challenges of tomorrow’s economy.
The Curriculum for Excellence, which aims for a broader, rounder, and more relevant learning experience for all pupils, is being introduced. Granted, it has its doubters, but it nonetheless represents a shift away from the traditional academically-orientated curriculum towards a schooling with a greater practical edge.
This change, while profound, does not seem to be enough. This week, there has been the powerful case made by Sir Ian Wood for the status of vocational education to be enhanced, accompanied by proposals for how that might be achieved. There was also the intervention of the David Hume Institute, at the behest of the Scottish Government, suggesting ways in which private philanthropy might enrich education’s institutional landscape by paying for particular specialist schooling.
It suggests that two conceits about Scottish education might be quietly disappearing. One is that it is the best system, if not just in the British Isles, but in the world, a complacency-engendering prejudice which is born from a proud history of Scottish pioneering of teaching available to all regardless of social status, but which does not stand up nowadays to evidential examination.
A second is a dogged adherence to the need for uniformity of provision, something that may have been historically required in order to ensure both the universality and equality of educational opportunity, but now is arguably not meeting the breadth of aspiration in contemporary society.
These points were aired earlier this year in a paper published by Reform Scotland, a think-tank, which argued that Scottish education needed more diversity of provision. This debate is a cultural minefield in which many would-be reformers have found themselves blown up, for it challenges the positions of power held by entrenched interest groups from civil service elites to the teaching unions.
Yet it is also an area into which the authors of this week’s reports are venturing. That they have some body armour in the shape of a semi-official blessing is welcome, for it indicates that the debate this time will not be prematurely terminated. Good, because it is a conversation the nation needs to have.
Power game of two halves
What programme producers often define as “good television” is where participants in a discussion become passionate, heated, and the viewer gets a feeling they might even come to blows. That was the mood of the independence debate staged by STV’s Scotland Tonight on Thursday night.
Nicola Sturgeon, the pugilistic SNP Deputy First Minister, and Anas Sarwar, Scottish Labour’s young and cheeky deputy leader, were intense but at least debated with other to an extent in the first part of the programme while moderated by the presenter.
But in the second half, billed as a cross-examination of the other’s arguments degenerated into what STV’s political editor described as a “stairheid rammy”, a phrase perhaps unnecessarily explained by the company’s
website as a “stairwell altercation”.
The heat generated may well have gratified the programme’s producers, but it shed remarkably little light on what was under discussion – the shape of welfare provision should independence occur. Mr Sarwar trod where his leader refused to go and appeared to commit the next Labour government to abolishing the “bedroom tax”. Ms Sturgeon promised greater fairness but gave no indication of how this would be achieved other than that there would be no bedroom tax. How this will inform anyone but the already committed to vote “yes” or “no” is hard to divine.
Neighbours, when a stairheid rammy breaks out, can opt to join in or to call the polis if things get out of hand. Television viewers can either stay tuned or switch off. We suspect that most will choose the latter option if there is any more of this kind of supposedly good television.