Scottish Education’s ‘Foundation Myth’ and the Uncomfortable Truths We Must Confront

The high quality and democratic values of Scottish education form part of the “foundation myth” of the modern Scottish state. The Parliament of Scotland legislated for free school education long before most comparable jurisdictions, and Scotland’s ancient universities were not only amongst the first in Europe, but established a tradition of scholarship to rival any of their peers. It was no accident that Edinburgh became a seat of the European Enlightenment, or that Scotland has provided the world with generations of scrupulous accountants, ambitious engineers, humane medics and principled jurists from the mid-nineteenth century onwards.

But as in all foundation myths, historical fact is easily effaced by retrospective wish fulfilment. Although later commentators praised the Scottish school system between the Reformation and the Industrial Revolution for turning those from humble backgrounds into “lads o’ pairts”, Professor Tom Devine has questioned whether literacy amongst the rural population, in particular, was any greater in Scotland than elsewhere.

Still worse, foundation myths have a habit of finding present-day forms which frustrate rational analysis of contemporary issues. Alex Salmond’s hubristic standing stone on the campus of Heriot-Watt University discouraged anyone from asking too loudly whether free undergraduate education for all was necessarily the best way to widen participation in Higher Education.

In the end it took the decline in the scores of Scottish children taking the OECD PISA tests to burst the bubble of educational self-congratulation. In truth, not only do the PISA tests provide only a crude measure and are probably “gamed” by some countries that take part, but Scottish children unarguably did well in some of them. However, as Professor Lindsay Paterson has pointed out, Scotland, having abandoned any objective test of its own children’s performance, had been unable itself to evaluate the impact of the Curriculum for Excellence. The PISA tests at least provide some yardstick.

Yet the problems should already have been evident to those who could see past the myth. Read an essay produced by a candidate for many SQA Higher qualifications and ask whether encouraging young people to write formulaic answers to predictable questions is the best way to engage their minds or enrich their souls. Consider the yawning gap between the Government’s lofty ambitions for Computing Science in schools and the actual supply of teachers qualified to teach the subject, or between its rhetoric about modern languages and the catastrophic collapse in numbers acquiring a National Qualification in any of them. Ask why Economics (a discipline born of the Scottish Enlightenment) has all but disappeared from Scottish state schools. Count the number of high school classrooms where teachers are preparing pupils for up to three different levels of qualification at the same time. More tellingly still, track the numbers of young people who tragically still emerge from their years of compulsory education with little to show but a sense of being failed by a system whose single job was to secure their success.

So, it is wrong to blame the Curriculum for Excellence alone for the PISA test shock. On the contrary, CfE owes a great deal to some of the most successful curriculums in the world, notably the International Baccalaureate. The IB enjoys widespread credibility and growing popularity around the globe and has a breadth and vision which sits well with Scotland’s Enlightenment image of itself.

But the differences between the IB and the Scottish education system are also instructive. The IB provides three programmes from primary age upwards which share common themes and approaches and which integrate coherent systems of assessment. This contrasts cruelly with a Scottish curriculum that initially promises breadth and independent thought, but which degenerates into some of the most narrow and transactional forms of assessment known to mankind as soon as the Senior Phase heaves into view.

Perhaps most tellingly, the IB is based in Geneva and is able to develop free from the influence of any government. Although the International Baccalaureate Organisation employs its fair share of education bureaucrats, the credibility of what it does is in the hands of schools, teachers and even the odd academic educationalist. It doesn’t always get things right, but it thrives on their research, good practice, innovation and debate.

In Scotland, however, it is literally more than teachers’ jobs are worth to debate educational ideas in public. Although supposedly “empowered”, Headteachers are often instructed what they must or must not do. Otherwise independent organisations compete to become “trusted partners” of government and too often end up as apologists for policy failure. Even Her Majesty’s Inspectorate enjoys a symbiotic relationship with Her Majesty’s Scottish Ministers. 

Occasionally, something different nevertheless happens. Take Newlands Junior College as an example. Although derided from the outset as the plaything of Jim McColl, one of Scotland’s richest men, it enabled expert teachers to develop an alternative model of education which for five years demonstrated that the system need not fail those who find engagement with school difficult. But the mere achievements of young people were insufficient to preserve it from being swamped by the tides of organisational orthodoxy and political pusillanimity. 

In this context, it is difficult to see how the Curriculum for Excellence or any curriculum with an ambition to be a tool for teachers and schools rather than a top-down set of directions could ever have succeeded. There is much talk at the moment of the need for Curriculum for Excellence 2.0, but no revision of the curriculum will succeed without there also being space for Professional Autonomy 1.0.

It is not a myth that Scotland is a nation where education has deep roots, where learning matters and the achievement of young people is about more than simply improving their individual economic success. But Scotland is also a country where education is failing too many and where the levers to improve the situation are in the hands of too few of those who could do something about it.

Melvyn Roffe has been Principal of George Watson’s College since August 2014, having previously been an English teacher, a Deputy Head in Wales and served as head of two state boarding schools in England.

If you are a frontline teacher in Scotland, we would be delighted to provide a platform for your views – we want to know what our education system can and should be doing to support young people through their schooling. Please email us at

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