Joan McAlpine: Gove's radical approach to schools was made in Scotland

NO government dares cut without giveaways to ease the pain. Margaret Thatcher capped town hall spending, but sold off telecoms and energy companies, creating millions of first-time shareholders. Clement Attlee enforced an austerity programme that saw ration books survive the Blitz to ease war debt. But he managed to deliver a National Health Service.

It is in this context we view the Westminster government's plans to press ahead with "free schools" modelled on Sweden. Allowing England's parents and teachers to set up their own schools seems an expensive ideological indulgence in the current climate. Yet 750 separate groups have expressed interest.

You might wonder why I am taking up space in Scotland's national newspaper to consider policies of no concern to us. But the "devolution divide" between Scotland and England is sharpest in educational matters and worth exploring. We took a different path from our neighbours, who have a more diverse range of educational provision. In England there are C of E, Methodist, Catholic and Jewish schools, grammars, specialist establishments, and city academies. In Scotland, there is a scholastic monoculture. Everybody gets the same – unless you are Gaelic, Catholic or able to pay. Quirks of history, such as single-sex schools, have been obliterated. Those who defend the status quo argue Scotland is different for cultural reasons. But is there anything intrinsically Scottish about lack of choice?

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The arrival of the Michael Gove as education secretary for England offers an opportunity to re-examine assumptions about the pedagogical divide between our two countries. Adopted at four months by an Aberdeen fish merchant and his lab assistant wife, Gove had his own "sure start" thanks to love, security and plenty of haddock (fish is the best brain food, is it not?) But his childhood wasn't gold-plated like those of Cameron and Osborne. He was state educated then won a scholarship to Robert Gordon's College. He is passionate about education and claims it is the only Cabinet seat he wants, to offer the largest number of children the greatest opportunities.

In Scotland those who control education – local government officials, councillors, civil servants, quangos such as the SQA and Learning and Teaching Scotland, and the teaching unions, argue that uniform provision is the fairest way to deliver equality. But Gove insists teachers and heads are better placed to run schools than bureaucrats and politicians. What is more, he quotes Scottish thinkers and ideas to justify his approach.

Gove is inspired by the work of the liberal minded Professor Lindsay Paterson of the University of Edinburgh and by the Scottish Democratic intellect, an approach to education defined by the late Scottish philosopher George Davie. A close friend of the radical nationalist poet Hugh MacDiarmid, Davie was as far from a Tory as it is possible to be. Paterson is an admirer of Davie and one of the biggest critics of the Curriculum for Excellence being introduced into Scotland's schools. Significantly, Gove has blocked a similar curricular change Labour's children's minister Ed Balls intended for England's primaries.

Gove is inspired by Paterson's belief that all children, whatever their family income, should have access to excellence. The recent trend towards offering more relevant and vocational education risks undermining this ideal. This was highlighted recently by the Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson on a visit to his old school, Govan High. He praised staff and pupils but expressed regret that the school no longer offered history. A knowledge of your country's past is surely essential to be an active citizen in the present, whatever your profession. But children in Govan, it seems, no longer had that opportunity.

Gove recently wrote he was "indebted" to Paterson in his own approach to the importance of knowledge for its own sake. He quoted Paterson's essay The Renewal of Social Democratic Educational Thought in Scotland.

"The anger of radical campaigners against a divided secondary education was because it denied working-class people access to a general education; they shared the aim of extending access to the best that has been thought and said… the democratic intellect was to be as much about the intellect as the access to it; and yet policy since the 1980s has rather neglected the importance of enabling students to engage properly with intellectual difficulty and intellectual worth.

"Instead policy has approached the problem of motivation by diluting seriousness, by fragmenting difficult programmes of study into modularised segments and by trying to divert students into intellectually undemanding courses of ostensible vocational relevance."

Gove believes free schools can address this "dilution of seriousness". He admires the Knowledge is Power Programme (KIPP) started in 1994 by two young teachers concerned at the low numbers of inner city pupils making it to college in United States. They created KIPP schools in inner-city Houston and the South Bronx in New York, drawing up contracts between pupils, parents and schools. English and Maths scores improve by 40 per cent in a year.

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Scotland could benefit from some loosening of central control. Historically, we had a diverse system. Parish schools in the country, elected school boards in the city, along with charity and choir schools, maintained grammars and high achieving technical secondaries like the famous Allan Glens. The most successful state school in the country, Jordanhill in Glasgow, is independent of council control. Yet tentative efforts to devolve management of schools – such as the recent initiative in East Lothian – are met with scepticism. Dislike of the last Conservative government in Scotland cemented our loyalty to institutions and social groups that opposed its policies – such as local authorities and the teaching unions. But much has changed. Teachers have received a generous pay and conditions settlement. We have a Scottish parliament, so do we need 32 council education departments spending precious funds on duplicate bureaucracy?

Scotland's public discourse on education seldom touches on philosophy, which used to be at its core. The political debate is about management. Are schools prepared for the curriculum? Are Labour councils blocking the reduction in class sizes? No Labour or SNP politician dares to invade the territory of the educational expertocracy by challenging how and what children should learn.

The Curriculum for Excellence was a Labour Liberal initiative now being delivered by the Nationalists, with some of the whackier aspects removed.

It's not that we lack indigenous ideas on education, just read Paterson or Davie.

Radical Scottish thinking has been borrowed by English Tories. At home, we reject anything that seems too daring or progressive – such as free schools.

In the educational sphere, it is we Scots who are the true conservatives.