Interpreting the school portrait as a symbol of Scotland’s drive for equity in education

Activity: Talk or presentation typesOral presentation


“With the daguerreotype … everyone will be able to have their portrait taken—formerly it was only the prominent—and at the same time everything is being done to make us all look exactly the same, so we shall only need one portrait.” (Kierkegaard, c. 1850)

Referring to an early photographic technology, Kierkegaard paints a picture of mass uniformity resulting from photography’s potential to bridge gaps born from elitism; between prominent and overlooked; wealthy and peasant. It is unclear from this isolated quote whether Kierkegaard is lamenting or celebrating the development of the daguerreotype. Fortunately, for the purposes of this paper a neutral interpretation is all that is required as it considers the possibility of photography as a means of bridging a social gap; echoing the Scottish belief in our education system as being capable of the same thing.

Judging by contemporary school portraits in Scotland, Kierkegaard’s premonition may well have come true in some sense. Every student, at least once in their school career, will have their portrait taken in the same way as every student before them. Save for minor differences such as uniform colour, these photographs come to look almost exactly alike.

In this paper, I ask: how can the school photograph be interpreted as a symbol of Scotland’s drive for educational equity? In order to propose an answer to this question, this paper will initially give a definition of equity drawn from philosophical discourse inside and outside of Scotland. Next, a comparison will be made between two different views of students: a literal view as offered by an analytic interpretation of the school photograph, and a figurative view as constructed from the language used in the Government’s own education policy material. Eventually, we will be able to conclude whether these views align with each other and with the definition of equity as offered at the outset.
It is the intention of this paper that, in considering features of the school experience sometimes overlooked by those engaged in research, we are drawn to reflect on and compare both the explicit intentions of a Government policy, and the latent meanings we can draw from those humble practices woven into the environments where such policies are being implemented.
Period1 Sep 2021
Event titleRe/framing Educational Equity: An international collaboration
Event typeConference
LocationGlasgow, United Kingdom