Danny Murphy was headteacher in Crieff High, Lornshill High and McLaren Academy. He was crucial in establishing the Scottish Qualification for Headship and has written thoughtfully but incisively on Scottish educational dilemmas. His new work, Schooling Scotland (Argyll Publishing) is the latest in the Postcards from Scotland series, examinations of contemporary Scottish society.
In the context of the referendum debate, when every argument was bent to fit either a pro-independence or pro-unionist perspective, the Postcards from Scotland are a refreshingly non-partisan but sharply probing alternative to the twisted logic which characterised so much of the so-called debate. Murphy’s take on schooling continues that honourable tradition.
He starts with what was accepted by almost every participant in the referendum debate: that Scotland is an unequal society but that equity is a shared Scottish value which requires to be put into operation if Scotland is to become a better place.
Schooling Scotland escapes the clichés. It asserts that it is the inequality in our wider society which leads to the inequality of schooling and not the other way round. In other words, the problems of an unequal society cannot be remedied by a better education system (although that might play a part) but the problems of a divisive and failing education system which reinforce social inequalities require radical social changes.
There is also however a pragmatic recognition that at the core of any healthy democracy is a fine balance between liberty and equality, one currently tilted far too heavily in favour of liberty – for a privileged minority. There is little liberty or choice for the poor: “When people experience poverty every choice is a reaction, not a plan.” The danger is that too heavy a tilt in the opposite direction destroys essential liberties.
Schooling Scotland also reiterates that education is an essentially human process. Values and insights flowing from personal engagement by dedicated teachers with learners, parents and communities should take priority over the measurable outcomes which have become the sole criterion by which our neo-liberal world evaluates schools. While the book recognises the skills of sections of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate, its excoriating critique of others (“combining poor interpersonal skills with the overweening arrogance of those who are not themselves accountable”) will echo countless teachers’ experiences.
The book poses a series of reforms (many of such startling common sense that it seems incredible that they have not been introduced long ago) which will challenge the current nature of Scottish schools and, in parallel with wider social changes, challenge the inequality which bedevils them.
The first is an end to the two leaving dates a year, determined by birthdays. No child should enter primary school below five years of age. Every child should then complete seven years in primary and five in secondary. They may then leave.
The second is that all schools (including private schools) should cooperate in networks of neighbouring school communities, sharing resources and responsibilities and increasing opportunities for all children, irrespective of background.
Another is that the priority in school evaluation should move from external inspections to evaluation by parents, pupils and staff, with parents and the school community having a stronger role in school governance and a strategic role for a reduced number of elected public bodies.
Schooling Scotland does not presume to be a comprehensive solution to the many difficulties facing our schools, but it is an up-front, honest and hopeful attempt to initiate that process.
Alex Wood has been a teacher for 38 years. He is now an associate with the Scottish Centre for Studies in School Administration at Edinburgh University.