Most eyes at the moment seem fixed firmly on the millennium and beyond. But, according to Tom Bryce and Walter Humes, "sensible evolution" can stem only from an understanding of the present and the past.
Humes, head of the department of educational studies at Glasgow University, and Bryce, vice-dean of the faculty of education at Strathclyde University, are editors of an ambitious and formidable tome with the unadorned title Scottish Education . Their aim has been to produce "a detailed, informed and critical account of Scottish education at the turn of the century", spanning pre-school to higher education.
With 1,000-plus pages, 112 chapters and 500,000 words from 120 contributors, it can be hand-held for only a few moments. But it seems set to become a key reference book. Accessible to non-specialists, it will be useful to educational professionals, including student teachers, researchers, administrators, overseas readers and hopefully members of the Scottish Parliament - for the key reason for producing the book is to record a "state of the nation" account of education before the new devolved administration sets about passing policy.
The pace of change makes it impossible for Scottish Education to be a definitive account, given the editors' philosophy, that does not make any chapters irrelevant. The writing is a mixture of the descriptive and analytical, the writers a mixture of insiders and outsiders. School teachers will no doubt be irritated that the overwhelming majority of authors are academics, but their contribution gives a sharp, critical edge.Insiders can offer a unique insight into how policy has evolved. A comprehensive list of authors is impossible here, but they have been chosen perceptively: Lindsay Paterson, professor of educational policy at Edinburgh University; Sally Brown, professor of education at Stirling University; Michael Leech, former principal of Stevenson College; Dugald Mackie, secretary of Glasgow University; Hamish Long and Tom McCool, former chief executives respectively of the Scottish Examination Board and the Scottish Vocational Education Council.
There is no party line, and different perspectives emerge, which, rather than undermining one another, arguably produce a more rounded picture. There are opposing views of the motives behind collaboration between higher education institutions. Ronald Crawford, secretary of the Committee of Scottish Higher Education Principals, goes on to argue that the motivation is irrelevant:
"Cooperation among academic institutions is here to stay." Some contributions rightly flag up the advantages of Scotland's size, which enables key players to meet easily, and the traditional esteem in which education is held. But there is a candid account of criticisms of the Scottish education system from figures such as Patrick Geddes and A. S. Neill, who condemned it as oppressive, stifling and authoritarian. David Raffe, director of Edinburgh University's centre for educational sociology,comments with deadly accuracy that Scotland has a "small and enclosed system with a tendency for complacency and self-congratulation".
He determinedly shakes that up by revealing that, contrary to popular belief, fewer Scottish 16 to 18-year-olds participate in full-time education than in other parts of the country. Scottish participation rates appear to be higher only if they are restricted to pupils staying on at school or if they are based on equivalent year groups rather than on age. The much-vaunted boast that more than 40 per cent of young people go on to higher education is matched by a similar proportion who leave full-time education within a year of the minimum leaving age. The reason is not fundamentally the education system but social inequality, Raffe says. "The link between social disadvantage and educational underachievement is similar to that elsewhere, but there is more social disadvantage in Scotland than in many other countries."
One of the most powerful themes in the book is the role of education in Scottish identity. David McCrone, professor of sociology at Edinburgh University, and the two editors highlight the power of the "myth" of the democratic intellect and egalitarianism, pointing out that while a myth cannot be proved, this does not make it untrue. The advent of the Scottish Parliament therefore emerges as a potential opportunity and threat - opportunity because education will be high on the parliament's agenda; threat because the parliament may be more interventionist in trying to shape the education system to particular ends.
In a hard-hitting contribution, Sir Stewart Sutherland, principal of Edinburgh University, paints a bleak picture of the universities' capacity to engage with the new administration. Over the past two decades, he says, they have become increasingly reactive, responding to the place defined for them by others. Universities must help the community to flourish, he argues, playing a full part in determining how this is done.
"Universities have lost their place in such a discussion, and this is a sign of the extent to which they have been complicit in their own gradual devaluation. They must start regaining that place not by standing off and shouting, but by first reassuring themselves about their own identity as they move into a new millennium that includes in Scotland uncharted political waters." The editors warn of a lack of "conceptual clarity" in recent policy statements. They point to an uncomfortable tension between control and liberation, the system being tightened up with the focus on targets and testing, alongside a potentially contradictory emphasis on access and lifelong learning. Their book does not offer a blueprint for the millennium, but it is an intriguing resource for those who wish to draw one up. The second edition, once the Scottish Parliament has begun to pass legislation, will be even more intriguing.
Olga Wojtas is Scottish editor, The THES .
Editor - T. G. K. Bryce and W. M. Humes
ISBN - 0 7486 0980 6
Publisher - Edinburgh University Press
Price - £24.99
Pages - 1,040