Why Scotland shone while England dribbled (posted 25th September 2006) (this is an extended first part of the talk I gave at Elgin - the rest of the talk was about stuff you can get on my Schools pages)
The questions about Scottish education (why are we doing so badly? Why did we do so well in the past?) are similar to the questions about Scottish football (why are we doing so badly? Why did we do so well in the past?).
So why did we do so well at football?
The working class and socialistically inclined Scottish footballers invented the "pass and run" technique while the individualistic English preferred dribbling - passing the ball was more likely to seen as an abrogation of responsibility and leadership by players influenced by public school upbringings. "Pass and run" gave the Scots and the Scottish Diaspora advantage out of all proportion to their size of population
But now all our football competitors pass and run.
So why did we do so well in education?
Scottish school education was once far advanced of most of the rest of the world. The protestant Reformation pushed for universality of education basically so that everybody could read the bible. Reading and writing gave the Scots and the Scottish Diaspora an advantage out of all proportion to their size of population.
But now all our industrial competitors read and write.
So when you ask the question "Wha's like us?" The answer now is, pretty much everybody.
The point is to be realistic and optimistic. In absolute terms, we are much better at football and education than we were a hundred years ago, but our competitors in both have caught up and in some measures surpassed us. That is not only not surprising, it is inevitable. Once we might have been "the best small country in the world" at passing and running, reading and writing but not now. Now, with the diversity of challenges and opportunities we face, it is difficult to see what "the best small country in the world" actually means, at least in the field of education.
But the good news is we have definitely improved. In the old days there were primary school classes up to 50, kids sat in serried rows and were taught rote to recite facts, at secondary school the bright kids did Latin and Greek, those who failed did engineering - and this from the country that gave us James Watt and John Logie Baird. I'm not talking about 18th Century Scotland, I'm talking about my Aberdeenshire school days.
Now in Scotland the average primary school class size is 24. A tremendous improvement in a few decades. But guess what? The European average is less than 20. Instead of looking back, we should be looking sideways. It might not guarantee further relegation down the leagues of educational standards but at least it might rebalance "wha's like us - dam' few and they're a' deid" from a proud boast to a wake up call.