Is education policy driving Scotland and England apart?

There is an assumption in public debate that – regardless of the outcome of the referendum – devolution has already caused Scotland and England to drift apart, and especially in education policy. The best-known of all the policy divergence is on student fees. In university classes now in Scotland there are students paying nothing and students paying a great deal. That has always been so, but the difference now is that the divergence is between citizens of the same state.

Equally significant is the radical departure in the structure of secondary schooling. The deliberate creation of diversity in England was started by Margaret Thatcher and John Major. It was given a strong impetus under the Blair government, and has become the most visible education policy of the present UK government. This is in stark contrast with both Wales and Scotland, which have done absolutely none of this. Scotland and Wales have still essentially a common structure of comprehensive, non-selective secondary schools, not diversified in any way.

Even more profound are changes to the curriculum in schools. On the one hand are the reforms in England introduced by the former Education Secretary Michael Gove, who tried to re-establish a traditional curriculum based on what he sees as the emancipating power of knowledge. This approach is centred on traditional subjects, such as English and Maths, and on teachers as experts. In contrast, the Scottish approach, in the form of the ‘Curriculum for Excellence’, is described by the Scottish Government as placing ‘the child at the centre of learning provision,’ rather than emphasising the knowledge that is to be learnt or the teacher that is to impart it. This Scottish approach is supported across the political spectrum, in contrast to the controversies in England which Mr Gove’s reforms have provoked.

So the differences seem stark. But are they? Evidence from evaluations and from public opinion suggests that the headlines and much academic commentary may have exaggerated the divide.

Take fees. If we compare opportunity rather than mechanisms of opportunity, the conclusion from careful research is that the differences in the financial regimes have no effect on the educational outcomes. Professor Nicholas Barr of the London School of Economics has noted that the difference in student finance does not mean that someone from a working class background in Scotland has a relatively better chance of attending university than someone in England from the same background. Moreover, public opinion is very similar in Scotland and England. While according to the 2013 British and Scottish Social Attitudes Surveys, 69% of people in England support means-tested fees, so also do 64% in Scotland..

Much the same is true of the structure of secondary schooling. Research in many countries (for two examples click here and here) has shown that, on the whole, the structure of a school system – even the presence or absence of selection – makes little difference to outcomes, whether these are achievement in examinations, social mobility, or civic values. Meanwhile, public opinion on how schools should be governed is very similar in Scotland and England. In the 2013 social attitudes surveys, the proportion in favour of private companies running schools was 12% in Scotland and 19% in England. So far as charities running schools is concerned, the proportion in favour was 29% in Scotland and 37% in England. True, Scottish opinion is more favourable to comprehensive schooling than English views (68% compared to 51% in the 2010 British and Scottish Social Attitudes Survey), but that difference long pre-dates devolution.

Finally, on the curriculum, the irony is that Mr Gove’s reforms owe more to Scottish educational traditions than does current Scottish policy. ‘Having grown up in Scotland,’ he said in 2009, ‘I identify the principle that all should have access to the best with the Scottish Enlightenment ideal of the Democratic Intellect.’ That Mr Gove’s thinking reflects his experience and understanding of education in Scotland suggests that his ideas are not as alien to Scottish preconceptions as has often been claimed. Scottish debates might in due course find rather more to admire in some of what he proposed than seems possible in the heat of the referendum arguments.

Public controversy can conceal deeper continuities. There are more similarities of culture, of opportunity, and of cultural ideas between Scotland and England than the rhetoric of politics sometimes indicates. If Scotland does decide to leave the UK, it will not be because the country has a fundamentally different educational philosophy from England.

A fuller analysis is available at the Journal of the British Academy

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About the author

Lindsay Paterson is Professor of Educational Policy in the School of Social and Political Science, University of Edinburgh. His main research interests are in education, civic engagement and political attitudes. Under the auspices of the Applied Quantitative Methods Network (AQMeN), he is involved in several ESRC-funded research projects that are analysing public attitudes relating to the Scottish independence referendum.