Independent School; Private Politics

Earlier this week there was a flurry of press around a Lloyds/TSB research detailing how fees for private schools had risen by a whopping 63% over the last decade. While I respect the motivation of parents who choose to shell out £10k or more each year as part of their effort to give their offspring the best chance in life, it is not a force for social good. Would the demise of the hale jingbang be such a bad thing?

Scotland has a long and honourable tradition of universal education, dating back to Knox and his disciples, who, as part of simplifying worship by removing intermediaries, saw the ability of each worshiper to read their own bible as freeing them from a priest’s impenetrable mumbo-jumbo during mass. The parish school and its dominie sent many a Scot out into the world to make their mark, creating the diaspora, an enviable reputation and the highest GDP in the world by 1910.

But we’ve since rather lost our way. Scotland has not topped any global league, either in education or in GDP, for some time. There are many reasons for this but high among them is our propensity for sending some children to private schools. It is not that the schools are bad in themselves—recent exam results published by SCIS are superb and those who attend the schools and those who paid are both generally well satisfied.

Although it comparing apples with oranges, the following two table list what are regarded as the top schools in the private and state sectors.

“League Table” of Private Schools by Advanced Highers

“League Table” of State Schools by Exam Results

But boosters of private schools open-minded enough to have read this far should consider the socially divisive impact of all this. To live in a free country, some degree of choice is necessary but so is some compulsion. We do not choose which laws to follow any more than which side of the road to drive on. While choosing a school for your child clearly has merits, siphoning off certain children amplifies inequality and, where money is involved, leads to the kind of self-perpetuating elitism that characterises ‘old money’ in the US to a disturbing, if not disruptive degree. Education in the USA is grossly unequal.

Those remaining in schools from which pupils with engaged parents have been wheeched away have that much less example of good ethos and ambition for themselves that is characteristic of the best schools—and especially fee-paying private ones. For pupils whose parents are poor, it becomes doubly hard to achieve whatever potential they may have. And while many schools in deprived areas combat—and often overcome—this with a tough ingenuity that is a credit to staff pupils and parents, why should they have to?

We need not have to follow the great leveling gulag of the comprehensive, as conceived by Labour in the sixties. Educationally, we are still recovering from the concept that every class must proceed at the speed of the slowest pupil. But the state schools of Scotland, boosted by much capital investment and the reinvigourating effect of the McCrone Settlement have never been in better shape. nor better funded.

I grew up in a small, affluent town, and, as someone whose dad bashed metal for a living, went to its state school, although a number of contemporaries hopped on the train for a private education. My school was one of those listed above and so I went on to enjoy an education limited only by my failings and not by opportunity. Others were not so lucky but both of us relished grinding some private school victim into the mud at rugby.

Now, although socialists believe in equality of education, you don’t have to be a socialist to see its advantages. In this competitive, global age, we no longer need an elite few, plus a mass of workers. The 21st century is skills-based and, whether its distilling whisky, engineering Class 26 frigates, relating Stirling’s colourful history or developing cool apps for the iPhone, we need all our oars in the educational water to avoid becoming a post-industrial backwater.

For secondary pupils, Edinburgh has the highest level of privately educated pupils in the UK, accounting for 24%. In Aberdeen it is 16%, in Glasgow 12%. This goes some way to explain why only Boroughmuir just squeezes into the last place on the state league table. In our capital city, where 1 in 4 pupils are creamed off to go to private schools, the state schools struggle to provide comparable education results. While league tables are not everything, the exam results on which they are based do determine who enters which university. Increasingly, well paying jobs are demanding that applicants have degrees.

Now, if Edinburgh were a social basket case, a vast wasteland of sink estates where society was failing and the vulnerable abandoned by the uncaring rich, that might be some explanation—however deplorable or inexcusable—for poor league results. But, since Edinburgh’s 26,000 primary and 20,000 secondary pupils are funded by some £300m, that spend of £6,500 per head is generous (especially given they need only teach 3 in 4 children) and actually approaches the £9,800 for private schools reported recently in the Hootsmon. Clearly the issue is not one of money.

What the issue appears to be is that—in Edinburgh especially—pupils with either ambition or potential (and some with neither), who have parents with both ambition and money, are sent to private school as a matter of course. Despite teachers’ best efforts, this skews the culture of state schools to disadvantage pupils there and inculcates the kind of elitist old-school-tie clique fumbling the job of governing Britain so badly just now.

While I am prepared to accept that Eton/Harrow/Windsor/Winchester, then on to read the Greats at Oxbridge is so quintessentially English that to meddle with it is a heresy to rank with ploughing up the cricket field, changing the guard in cammies and kevlar or chilling the bitter down at the Dog and Duck, I see no such dispensation in egalitarian Scotland. From Arbroath, down through the socially mixed tenements of the Old Town, through the broad reach of the dominie’s teaching from Whithorn to Wick, this has been the homeland of the Lad o’ Pairts, a humble citizen given a chance and who seized it.

Were there no compelling reason to curtail private education in Scotland, it would still rankle many, as it does not sit well within our culture. But the compelling reason is that, whatever private schools can achieve, they are depriving the majority of a social balance in their education and perpetuating a class system originating in English sensibility and which causes a mixture of impatience and derision among most Scots.

However desirable, abolishing private schools could be seen as undemocratic. However, removing their dubious charity status would seem a reasonable, if not desirable step. Most would close as a result. Those who insisted on setting themselves apart from us mortals could still do so—but would pay through the nose far more than the 63% increase bemoaned by the Hootsmon. But all children from a given catchment would then not just be educated together but socialise far easier because they would know each other and not use different uniforms to build social divisions.

Those journeying in to work in cities would no longer have to thole tribes of 13-year-olds with their feet on the seats and those 13-year-olds would suddenly have an extra couple of hours in the day to swot under the cosh of their ambitious parents—or simply get to know the other kids in their neighbourhood for once. Best of all, some £300m of middle class money would be released as discretionary spending each year—enough to drag Scotland out of recession all by itself.

About davidsberry

Local councillor, tour guide and database designer. Keen on wildlife, history, boats and music. Stood for the Scottish Parliament 2011; lost by 151 votes.
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