Democratic Schooling in Scotland: Past, Present and Future

Just a plug for my chapter in the recently published book, Democratic Citizenship in Schools (Brown, Ross and Munn eds) (Dunedin Academic Press Edinburgh 2012).







It’s a good read (well it should stimulate a bit of argument anyway)..  Here’s a little extract (pp20-22) to whet your appetite.

In the present, the exciting energetic daily life a typical Scottish secondary school amply illustrates this interplay of democratic values and their impact on the lives and understanding of individuals, so examples from school life are used in this section to bring the broader issues into vivid relief.

A school responded to the increasing use of sophisticated mobile phones by conducting a community wide debate in which the various advantages and concerns of their use in school were aired  – in Parent Forums, in Student Council, in staff meetings, in Assemblies. Following this debate a new policy was agreed to replace the previous unworkable policy in which phones had been completely ‘banned’.  The new policy stated that pupils were permitted to use their phones in social areas outwith the timetabled school day but there was a strict sanction (confiscation and return to the parent, not the pupil) if a phone were to be used in the classroom.

Shortly after the introduction of the new policy, one of the Depute Headteachers was called to a Science laboratory by a teacher. She found an argument taking place as a 14 year old girl had refused to hand over her mobile phone, which she had been using under the desk in class. She had also refused either to leave the room in order to discuss this with the teacher in a less confrontational one-to-one setting or to report to the Depute Head herself. There was a great deal of emotional heat in the room. The learning objective of the lesson (to learn how to balance simple neutralisation equations) had been lost some time ago. Later, after investigation and discussion of the incident with the girl, and eventually her mother, both the girl and her mother justified her disruptive behaviour on the grounds that she needed to have her phone, no matter what the school policy said (‘freedom’) and that her treatment had been ‘unfair’, since another girl had already used her phone in the class and the teacher had ‘done nothing about it’. The teacher ‘doesn’t like me anyway’. To what neutral agreed ground for resolution can the conversation refer, when democratic values can be interpreted to such different purpose?  For the girl and her mother, individual freedom is more important than ‘schooling’.

What would Bevan have made of the girl clinging to her mobile phone, and resisting the arbitrary power of the school as an instrument of state oppression? Indeed this is the perceived character of schooling for a significant number of our young people and their parents. Schooling is something done ‘to you’, not ‘with you’, by people who drive in from somewhere else. School is an experience which you are compelled into; which you may, at best, tolerate, in among the more exciting aspects of your teenage years; these ‘scholars’ find school alien. It is a place where they come, as a colleague of mine once wryly observed, ‘to watch adults working hard’, before getting on with their lives. Asked to do homework in order to improve their chances in national examinations, some refuse, making clear that while the teacher can have some authority over them between 9 and 4, the evenings and weekends are their time. Such pupils may feel shut out of full participation (‘Credit’ level courses, progression on to S6[1]), by lack of skills in formal language and in decentred modes of thinking, and react accordingly by rejecting, or at best passively tolerating, the system which they see as rejecting them. This is not the whole picture of contemporary schooling but it is the picture of many of the 20% which the OECD report of 2007 (OECD 2007) recommended should get a better deal out of the Scottish school system. Where are the values of ‘freedom’, ‘equality’ and ‘fairness’ played out in such exchanges?

OK it’s a bit pricey, but there isn’t a big market for Scottish education books (regrettably and, in my view, surprisingly!) and the publisher has to break even.  The subtitle of the book is ‘Teaching Controversial Issues, Traditions and Accountability’ so if you’re interested, I recommend it for concentrating the grey matter on some important issues in contemporary education.

[1] S6, the sixth year of Scottish secondary schooling, is the only year in which all students, now aged 16 or over,  have positively chosen to attend school.


One thought on “Democratic Schooling in Scotland: Past, Present and Future

  1. Pingback: Let’s make Scottish education fairer for all | Danny Murphy's Blog

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