Scotland has always had control over what is taught in its schools and universities. In the 18th century, its centres of learning attracted scholars from across Europe who were dazzled by the Scottish enlightenment. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the country’s rigorous education for the poorest Scots influenced other industrialised nations, including England. But since devolution on the eve of the 21st, Scotland’s education policies have diverged from that of the other nations of the UK.
The Scottish National party, the party in government in Edinburgh since 2007, followed the lead set by its Labour predecessors. “There has been an all-party consensus on education,” says Mark Priestley, professor of education at Stirling university. “Scotland has looked more to Europe for inspiration,” he says, “while England has tended to look to the United States.”
The pedagogical philosophy embodied in Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence, the national strategy for teaching introduced in 2010, is one example of how pupils’ experience differs north of the border. In England over the past four years under former education secretary Michael Gove, schools have been encouraged to teach discipline, more traditional forms of knowledge and a common cultural canon. In Scotland, however, a more skills-focused “child-centred” approach has been adopted.
The structure of Scotland’s schools system has remained largely untouched while Mr Gove embarked on his revolution in England. Local authorities and the Education Institute of Scotland, the largest teaching union, are relatively more powerful than in England, and the SNP has avoided challenging the education establishment’s role in how schools are run.
Summarising education policy over the past 15 years, Lindsay Paterson, professor of education at Edinburgh university, says: “There’s a number of things that Scotland did but there are more important things that Scotland didn’t do.” As in other areas of public policy, Scotland largely refrained from embarking on radical reforms to education that have been seen in countries such as Sweden, the US and England. There is no Scottish equivalent of free schools, charter schools or academies – the new institutions that have challenged the status quo, with mixed success, elsewhere.
“The SNP is not a policy party,” says Alex Bell, its former head of policy who resigned in 2013 in frustration at what he saw as the party’s lack of imagination. Scotland’s Future, the white paper ostensibly outlining the policies of an independent Scotland, was a “white screen on to which everyone could project their ideas”, he says. Its proposals were familiar centre-left pledges. Mr Bell says that there are only two truly original policies that have emerged from the SNP in Holyrood (minimum alcohol pricing and a water bill) and neither of these was concerned with education.
Over the past 15 years, Scottish pupils’ attainment has “stagnated at best” while English pupils have improved, Professor Paterson says. Research led by Steve Machin, an economist at University College London, supports this assessment. A 2013 report by Prof Machin and his colleagues concluded that “there are many more similarities than differences in terms of educational attainment across the four countries [of the UK]”. However, it also found that, based on national test results (adjusted to take account of different qualifications), Scotland’s performance was “very stable” while England’s was “improving”. On the benchmark international test, Pisa, “Scotland was doing significantly better in the 1990s than it is today”, Professor Paterson says.
In higher education, the SNP has introduced a totemic policy – no upfront fees for Scottish undergraduates who attend Scottish universities. Alex Salmond, SNP leader, has said that “rocks would melt under the sun” before he repealed this move. It is “a real advantage to Scottish universities in recruiting students”, says Professor Sir Ian Diamond, vice-chancellor of Aberdeen university. He believes the policy benefits the Scottish economy and says that its financial implications in an independent Scotland would be considered “as part of an assessment of the government’s overall priorities”.
Prof Paterson, meanwhile, argues that there is no evidence that the SNP’s fees policy has increased access to university for poorer pupils, one of its stated goals.
The SNP record has been one of continuity and conservatism. Ironically, over the past four years it has been a Scot, Mr Gove, who has introduced the most radical reforms to education anywhere in Europe – and he has done that in England.