A very English problem

The new government which places so much emphasis on education has Scots right at the heart of its leadership. The Scots have a passion for education the English lack. So do the Welsh. Is pride in education a Celtic passion that has bypassed the English? Jack O'Sullivan investigates
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The Independent Online
Astute Conservatives knew over a year ago that they would be wiped out in Scotland. But it wasn't anger about the economy or devolution that worried them. They realised they were finished when 40,000 people, most of them parents, marched through the capital, protesting against school funding cuts. Here were middle-class Edinburgh voters - in the Tories' heartland - telling the Conservatives that they were destroying one of Scotland's most prized treasures - education. No self-respecting Scot could return a government judged guilty of such irreverence.

That march reflects a passion you don't find south of the border. You don't see 40,000 English parents marching against school cuts. The English just don't get as worked up about education. Part of the reason is that most people in Scotland send their children to the local school. The private sector is much smaller, so everyone has a real investment in the state system, like in the NHS. In England, the system is fragmented, with the elite 9 per cent going private. It is harder to know who to blame when things go wrong.

More fundamentally, people in Scotland simply care about education in a way that has never captured the imagination of the English. International comparisons suggest that the Scots don't do any better than their southern neighbours despite all their sense of superiority, but you will not convince the Scots of that. They have even , like so often in the history of English education, sent their missionaries over Hadrian's Wall to reform practice south of the border. The current government, which places so much importance on education is, of course, led by three Scots - Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Robin Cook.

History offers many explanations for the Scottish obsession. Being well- educated has always been an important aspect of what it is to be Scottish. It's partly about nationalism. When Scotland lost its independence in 1707, the universities were still governed from Scotland. So the education system fulfilled some of the functions of a Parliament.

But attitudes have always been very different north and south of the border. The English view was once cruelly summed up by Matthew Arnold. There were, believed the poet, three classes of English people, "Barbarians, Philistines and the Populace", none of whom really cared much for learning. Traditionally in England it was alright to be stupid as long as you were a gentleman, born into the elite. In Scotland, literacy was a pre-requisite of social respect. And schools were part of the great urban landscape, whereas in England the best schools were removed to the countryside and even the universities were in small market towns.

For the English, learning has been traditionally a secular, pragmatic activity, more a means to an end than an end in itself. For the Scots, it seems to be a semi-religious experience, bound up with non-conformism. George Davie, the Edinburgh philosopher and author of The Democratic Intellect, perhaps got closest to explaining the attitude. He believed that the country's university system was founded on a theism, namely that God is man's capacity for conscience and rationality, which is brought out in a social context by education. Thomas Carlyle would have agreed. "A good book," said the Scottish historian and political philosopher, "is the purest essence of a human soul".

The result of this respect for learning is a long history of prominent Scots, who had humble origins, but whose educational achievement was enough to elevate them in society. Carlyle himself was the son of a small farmer from Dumfriesshire. Likewise Robert Burns, though known as the "heaven- taught ploughman" was in fact well-educated because his father and two other small farmers in Ayrshire clubbed together to pay for a graduate to teach their boys. Michael Forsyth is one of many modern Scottish politicians whose excellent education raised them out of the working class. Lord Mackay of Clashfern, the last Lord Chancellor, is the son of a railwayman. The father of his successor, Lord Irvine of Lairg, was a roof slater. "I have a really passionate belief in public education as a democratic route to self-improvement," Lord Irvine said recently, encapsulating an attitude in which socialism, Calvinism and a Scottish distaste for aristocracy are all mixed up in treasuring education.

Christopher Harvie, Professor of British and Irish Studies, at the University of Tubingen in Germany, demonstrates Scottish social mobility through education by highlighting the family of Ian Fleming. "If you go back three generations," says Professor Harvie, "you find the Flemings were weavers in the jute mills in Dundee. But Robert Fleming had a head for figures and so became an accounting clerk for the mills. Two generations on they were sending their boys to Eton and Ian Fleming had created James Bond."

And, of course, the man who has come to epitomise Bond is another Scot who has risen dramatically to fame from working class roots - Sean Connery. "Connery is a lad o' pairts," says Professor Harvie, "a man who has cultivated his intelligence. He became successful by reading up the business of acting, stage craft, studying Ibsen. And when he made it, he set up a foundation to make grants to support working-class children in further education." Like Andrew Carnegie, who endowed hundreds of libraries with his fabulous wealth, Connery places a typically Scottish value on education being cheap and available.

It was always the case. By the 17th century, says Professor Harvie, there was a requirement on all Scottish parishes to run a school (long before such facilities were universally available in England). At the end of the 18th century, when Scotland had four universities, England had only two. "You could go to Edinburgh for pounds 15 a year. But the minimum for Oxford would have been pounds 100." A public inquiry in 1865 found that one in 1,000 Scots were university students, compared with one in 2,500 Germans and one in 6,000 English people. It is still true that twice as many people in Scotland as in England go on to further education.

This pride in education may be more than just a Scottish thing. Perhaps it is Celtic. After all, Irish children are now judged Europe's top mathematicians by international studies. And the Welsh, too, are rediscovering a passion for education which characterised the Victorian period and the early part of this century. Wales has long been known for producing brilliant teachers and some of Britain's finest scientists from its grammar schools. Among its scientific glitterati are the four Sir Johns - Sir John Meurig Thomas (Master of Peterhouse, Cambridge), Sir John Cadogan (Director General of the Research Councils), Sir John Houghton (former chief executive of the Met Office) and Sir John Maddox (former editor of Nature, the scientific journal).

Welsh educational pride was built on an early history, based on much higher levels of literacy than in England, thanks once again to religious fervour. The translation of the Bible into Welsh in the 16th century led to the creation of "circulating schools" in the 17th century, where four or five would be taught to read and would then go on to teach others.

But the creation of good secondary schools in the Victorian era, long before they were established in England, was the foundation of the modern system. "If you are on the periphery, you feel that education is your way into the centre," says David Reynolds, Professor of Education at Newcastle University. At one time, up to 50 per cent of children in some Welsh areas attended grammar schools. "It produced very good levels of academic achievement at the top but a high level of failure at the bottom, " according to Professor Reynolds. And the proportion of Welsh people in further education was much higher than in England. But the system, he says, lost direction and grew complacent in the post-war period. Economic decline over the past 20 years also exacted its toll as has the decline in Sunday school education.

"There is still as sense that our schools are good," says Catherine James, former secretary of the Welsh Secondary Heads Association. "But we have not had the sense of superiority they have in Scotland."

Pride in the Welsh language is, however, rejuvenating the system, says Professor Reynolds. More and more people, notably from English-speaking homes, are placing their children in bilingual schools because of their well-documented academic success.

"The Welsh language has long elevated the artist, the poet and literature to a high level," says Professor Reynolds. "The Welsh system seems now to be coming good again, by opening itself up to outside influences but also by retrenching and celebrating its own culture."

Catherine James says: "People who care about Welsh are simply more passionate. Their children are having to, say, read a book in English and then write about it in Welsh. It is bound to make them think more about what they are doing."

But like in Scotland, a key to explaining passion about education seems to be the nature of the society. "Both in Wales and Scotland," says Professor Reynolds, "there is the assumption that status is there to be achieved by you, not ascribed to you because of class or birth." England take note.