Growing up in North Berwick, we felt sorry for the private school kids. Shipped off in the train to Heriots or Melvilles in Edinburgh, they came home in weird uniforms long after dark when local kids were long done playing and were snug at home having their tea. Parochial as that attitude might be, it didn’t stop one classmate becoming a leading forensic accountant at the Old Bailey or another Professor of Medical Statistics at the University of Hong Kong.
No doubt private school kids were given a good education, but at what cost? We never saw or socialised with them; they were never at Scouts or rugby, never went guising or sledging on Coo’s Green. Later, on holiday from university, they behaved like strangers in their own town. Now, few maintain any contact at all while, of the ‘local’ kids, many returned to live and even more keep in touch.
All this came to the fore when the BBC picked on Marilyne MacLaren’s efforts to dissuade Edinburgh parents from exercising their right to choose their child’s school, seeing in them a cynical ploy to deprive parents of their hard-won rights, while saving Edinburgh Council the inconvenience of having to deal with unplanned transfers.
Since Cllr MacLaren has yet to make any other argument, there may be some element of truth in this. But there is much more to in than that. At the very least, we have the situation described above, where children spend hours being freighted to and fro. Not only do they miss hanging with the kids from their own area but they don’t learn social or road skills—let alone get exercised and wakened up—strapped in the back of a Chelsea Tractor instead of walking the half-mile to school with friends.
What such kids do learn is to be a gypsy, feeling at home neither in school nor where they live. Add in a couple of career moves and, as a young adult, they have trouble settling from minimal experience of what ‘settled’ means. No doubt, parents have good intentions, wanting “only the best education” for their child when sending them across the city to a school with ‘better results’.
But how can they judge? A parent with their first child entering P1 has only their own schooling of twenty or more years before as experience. They may chat to the head or even some teachers but what will they be told? That the school is any less than excellent and the staff any less than dedicated and brilliant? Unlikely. So their child will become ping-pong baggage for up to 13 years on what basis?
Even if the school chosen is unquestionably better at achieving exam results, what does that matter if the child has few friends there, feels alien social pressures there, does not meet the local understanding that many good teachers master and practice. Kickabouts in the park after school and crowding round a new Xbox game in a friend’s bedroom round the corner may not lead direct to Nobel prizes but they create support networks, round out personalities and provide a rootedness that leads to involvement like visiting local old people. Kids coming home from across town with a bagful of homework are notably absent from such activities.
Now, most kids are resilient. Given some of the backgrounds they have survived, it’s a miracle many kids grew up to be the contributing human beings they have. Commuting to a distant school is one of the lesser evils. But parental choice should be exercised as a right no more than access to the NHS. Ideally, each school, while being different and perhaps offering some specialties, should be of a comparable standard.
The concept of sink and magnet schools sits poorly with Scotland. Given our society is becoming more widely heterogeneous at the community level, there is no reason for any school not to become a good school. Allowing ambitious parents to pull their promising offspring away shows little confidence in that community—let alone the school—and in the rich variety of people inhabiting Scots towns and reflected in the social cross-section of kids at their school. That, in itself, is part of our education.
Before they make their choice, parents should think what they’re actually asking their child to forego for the sake of their own ambition, however well intentioned.