Why a forward looking Scottish education system belongs in Europe


John Robertson makes the case for a forward and outward-looking Scottish education system

‘Our liaison with Europe, however, is almost as old as Scotland itself.’ (Rosemary Goring, Herald, 21st June 2016)

It’s now 456 years since John Knox called for universal free education in Scotland. Leaving aside his insistence on double-periods of RE, morning and afternoon, every day, I think that we can recognise that it was a good idea otherwise. Now, where did he get the idea? I have to admit to not having a definitive source on that but it clearly happened sometime between his early life in Haddington and his time with his greatest influence, John Calvin, in Geneva so…that’ll be Geneva then?

John Robertson
John Robertson

Our much-vaunted education system has its roots, probably in Europe, not Scotland, nor England, for that matter. I know Switzerland isn’t in the EU but it was part of that earlier version, the Holy Roman Empire, so my analogy holds.

Since the result came in, we’ve heard non-stop about Scotland’s desire to stay in the EU. We’ve heard less of the argument that, even after 300 years plus of union with England, we might actually still fit better in Europe. That fit might be argued in terms of trade or our legal system but I want to argue, here, that our education system, at school level in particular, actually belongs in Europe and that, even after three centuries ‘next door’, has a still-breathing fundamental difference that matters, from its English neighbour.

As I watched the EU Referendum coverage, a memory of having read something very relevant on education stirred in my aging brain cells. Needless to say I couldn’t remember the title or the author despite the latter being quite distinctive – Jenny Ozga! She’s a now retired professor with time in Strathclyde, Keele, Bristol, Oxford and Edinburgh universities behind her. She doesn’t seem to have published anything on her background but Ozga is a Polish name and we know and value our Polish friends in Scotland. The paper she wrote in 2011, was: ‘Governing Narratives: “local” meanings and globalising education policy’ in Education Inquiry (reference below). I’m going to base most of my argument for Scotland’s education system belonging in Europe on what she wrote:


The particular focus of her paper was on self-evaluation in schools and this is particularly relevant at this time as FM Sturgeon and Education Secretary John Swinney strive to demonstrate that they will support self-evaluation and development within schools. Ozga opens with this:

‘Self-evaluation is being installed successfully in Scotland where a Nationalist government has constructed a governing narrative that stresses collaboration and fairness, but England’s reliance on competitive individualism presents problems for the mobilisation of a persuasive governing project.’ (304)

So you see where she’s going with this line of argument. A fundamental difference in the value systems of the two education systems underpins practice on the ground by politicians and educationists. She asserts that this is a long-standing difference but one that has been maintained if not widened in recent years:

‘Although there are close parallels in education policy between England and Scotland from the period of the post-war Keynesian welfare state, there is evidence of divergence from the late 1970s onwards, when the Conservative-controlled UK administrations re-made education in line with market principles. However, whereas England introduced a National Curriculum with National Testing and a strong focus on hard performance indicators, these approaches were successfully resisted in Scotland. Similarly, competition between schools was not promoted as strongly in Scotland. Differences became more visible with the creation of a Scottish parliament in 1999, which has responsibility for education policy. Further, the election of a minority Scottish National Party (SNP) government in Scotland in 2007 marked a break from Labour party policy influence on the Scottish political scene, and brought about considerable change in style of government.’ (307)


Further, making the point that Scotland continues to look beyond England to Europe for its inspiration and confirmation, Ozga sees in our education system evidence of a wider attitude toward Europe. Most important she sees in this activity, that Scotland is ‘repositioning itself alongside’ particular European countries and not just the EU, in a vague sense:

‘The political context also shapes the contrasting orientation of Scotland to Europe: while England references global agencies like the OECD and the World Bank and is pre-occupied with its global positioning, Scotland’s SNP government seeks to discursively re-position a “smarter Scotland” alongside selected small, social democratic states in Europe, especially Norway and Sweden. In promoting this narrative or imaginary of Scotland, education policy is a key arena for the SNP because it combines the central, inescapable focus on the economy with the core principle of fairness that references embedded narratives of national identity. (311)

Turning to the specific case of school improvement through self-evaluation, Ozga again highlights the differences in the Scottish and English systems and they ways in which they reflect the European, more collaborative, perspective in Scotland in contrast with the Anglo-American more competitive perspective:

‘The particular character of performance management in Scotland is well illustrated by the development of self-assessment in education. New performance management arrangements require service providers [teachers] to manage services and account for performance. These developments are in line with parallel developments in England, though the narrative promoting change there is about reducing the public sector and involving new partners [private consultants]. In Scotland, there is reference to reducing bureaucracy through drawing on expert judgment, to evidence, to the building of trust and to constant learning from self-evaluation, not only in relation to education/learning policy and institutions, but more broadly as a key characteristic of governing.’ (312)

So even down at this level, in the schools, the background values stressing trust and collaboration are evident in practice. Ozga finishes with this:

‘In Scotland, the governing strategy relies on co-option and collective identification, in England the focus remains on compliance and performance.’  (315)


Some readers will be thinking perhaps that this is all very well but a bit soft for this fiercely competitive globalised world. The English education policy statements make much of attaining world-class performance. How is it working out? I leave you with these, on Scotland from Pisa, via the BBC and below that, something on the English system, from the OECD:

‘Scotland was the best for reading and maths of the UK nations, ranked 15th and 21st (out of 67 developed countries)

 ‘Young people in England are the most illiterate in the developed world with many students graduating with only a basic grasp of English and maths, an in-depth analysis by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has found.’

Better together? In Europe, yes we are.


Ozga, J. (2011) Education Inquiry Vol. 2, No. 2, May 2011, pp.305–318 Governing Narratives: “local” meanings and globalising education policy at: http://www.lh.umu.se/digitalAssets/72/72677_inquiry_ozga.pdf

OECD: http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/young-people-england-have-lowest-literacy-levels-developed-world-says-oecd-1540711

BBC (Pisa) at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-11930257