Scotch myths in education
Some years back I gave a talk in Glasgow, and behind me was a huge banner saying, “Scotland, healer, educator to the world”. It was embarrassing hubris, but the myth still persists that Scotland is somehow, a leader in learning. This week I gave a talk at the Royal Society of Scotland in Edinburgh, and the mood was far more realistic, but maybe more worrying.
Scotland 3 myths
Hugh Trevor-Roper’s ‘The Invention of Scotland’ literally scotches three myths; political, literary and sartorial. Celtic nations are good at mythologizing. We made up a list of fictitious Kings to fill in the gaps, forged documents to prove it, wrote fictitious poetry in an attempt to create a Scottish Homer (Ossian) and the kilt and its accessories was invented by an English Quaker (Thomas Rawlinson) for workers in his Highland factory. It is a “purely modern costume…to bring them off the heath and into the factory”. Kilts were never worn by the clans and neither were clan-specific tartans. The Late 18th century Romantic movement, formation of Highland regiments (to suppress the Highlands and fight abroad), a visit by George IV and Queen Victoria all helped create the myth of a ‘tartanised’ Scotland. Trevor-Roper describes Scotland as a mythologizing nation, keen to invent a history that often doesn’t exist, and uncovers the long list of forgers and fantasists who helped create that myth.
He was said to have been working on a fourth myth. We don’t know what that was. It could have been sport, we never did invent 'Golf', nor 'Curling', nor any other sport for that matter. Even the Highland Games were a mid-19th century concoction, as well documented in Grant Jarvie's Highland Games: The Making of the Myth. As for the bagpipes, Nero played the damn things and they existed in Europe, Ireland and Northumbria long before their appearance in Scotland. Again, it was the Highland Regiments and their colonial exploits that spread the myth.
The fourth myth could have been 'finance' but the broadsword has been taken to RBS and HBOS, Fred Goodwin has been exposed as a greedy half-wit and the myth has evapourated as quickly as Scotch mist.
Interestingly, both Goodwin and Cummings (HBOS) were the product of the Scottish state schooling system. My guess is that it was the ‘education’ myth. So I did a little analysis myself.
It is still widely believed that Scotland has a superior educational system. Well, despite the favourable Barnett formula, kicked off in 1979, described in a recent 2009 inquiry as ‘arbitrary and unfair’, that gives every Scot £1,644 more than England, the system is not performing. We can expect changes on this front soon, as the Conservatives have nothing much to gain North of the border, and the SNP would rather push for nationalism at the expense of revenue. Salmond said as much at his conference this week where he looked forward to a 'hung parliament' where, and I quote, "Westminster would dance to a Scottish tune".
The 2007 OECD (PISA) assessment showed that despite a doubling in spend over the decade of devolution, improvement was marginal, a similar result to England. In fact, Scotland slipped in Maths, English & Science and its PIRLS (Reading/literacy) rating stands at 21st , down from 14th), six places behind England. Even worse, Scottish students don’t like school one bit. Only 65% said they liked being at school (near the bottom of the survey).
Scottish schools are torn apart by sectarian policies (faith schools in Scotland mean Catholic schools), a wasted sixth year and in some places social problems and division (in Edinburgh 25% of students go to private school).
Like every developed nation, in the wake of the financial crisis and squeeze on public spending will hit Scotland hard. There are several ways in which the public finances will be squeezed. First a reduced Barnett formula, secondly slower growth leading to lower tax base, thirdly the persistent problem of low productivity, fourthly the dependence on financial jobs which are due to be culled or moved south, fifth dependence on public sector employment (23.6% employed in public sector compared to 19.1% in England, 56% of economic activity flowed from public economy compared to 43% across UK).
What to do?
They (and we) have few options:
Spend more – NOT POSSIBLE
Make learners pay – MARGINAL EFFECT
Do more for less – LOGICAL OPTION
I agree with OECD Secretary General Angel Gurría when he says, "optimising policy choices" and improving the overall management of education institutions” and "Investments in education will need to become much more efficient."
Scotland continues to issue bellicose and belligerent statements to Westminster. This is perfectly compatible with Scottish nationalism (as voted in by the Scottish people). Salmond and Swinney may simply be driving the nationalist wedge more deeply, accepting a poorer Scotland as the price one pays for separation. That, in my view, would be tragic.