Schools don’t teach much Latin these days. Despite The Iris Project – Literacy Through Latin, launched two years ago its teaching is pretty much confined to independent (i.e. private, or in England, public) schools. This makes them appear archaic. State schools meanwhile are launching our kids into the future by teaching ‘modern’ subjects, right?

Not quite. Although proportionally significant only in Edinburgh, private schools in Scotland are pretty smug about their ability to educate ‘leaders of the future’. And basic SQA exam statistics would appear to bear them out. Of the 660,000 pupils in Scottish schools, only 31,000 (under 5%) attend private schools. Yet, according to Ms Dorothy MacGinty, Headmistress of Kilgraston School:

“Students in independent schools are three times more likely to gain A and A* grades at A-level than their state-educated peers. In girls’ education, the figures are even more stark: only one in 20 girls taking A-levels study at independent schools; yet one in four of the A* grades awarded in STEM subjects goes to them.”

Ms McGinty is fulsome in her praise of the advantages of independent schools; the Friends of the Scotsman have given her a half-page platform in today’s Scotsman to expand on the above, which she does with great enthusiasm. Recently returned from England where the ‘public’ school is alive and well, she attributes a recent 4.3% rise in pupil numbers to Michael Gove’s policies. as he puts it: “With Academy Schools and Free Schools springing up to blaze a trail in uncharted territory, parents are not willing to leave their child’s education to chance.

Though many may share her antipathy towards Gove, she just said a mouthful. The implication is that, unless you can fork out double minimum wage per sprog, your children’s education is likely to suffer. That’s bad enough in England but, in Scotland which has long had pride in its education, that cannot go unchallenged.

Certainly, regular readers of this blog will know that it has little time for the EIS and the manner in which all education unions constantly harps on teacher pay and conditions but appears to care little for the fate of children that should be their focus. As a result, state schools remain afflicted by a minority of clock watchers, sea lawyers, time servers and dead wood whose days might be more fruitfully spent on their vegetable patch and not in the classroom. Private schools tolerate few such passengers.

But that ignores the bulk of motivated professional teachers who seek to inspire their charges and are constantly finding ways to engage with young minds to inspire them with worlds they can inhabit beyond Hollyoaks, Farmville or Game of Thrones. Private schools ensure they don’t always get to teach the best pupils. The flaw in McGinty’s thinking is to think that, by throwing money at education, you can guarantee a good one. There are many reasons she—and those parents who think they can buy their kid a successful career—are wrong. Here are six of the best

  1. It’s been tried before. The USA is rife with a class system in a culture that claims to be classless. ‘Prep Schools’ are no longer confined to the East Coast. Attendance at them and the odd endowment from parents guarantees places at Ivy League universities, which in turn pretty much guarantee good jobs in law firms and large corporations. But the massive waste of talent for 9 in 10 families unable to afford horrendous fees involved means the US still relies on trained immigrants for much of its science and engineering prowess. Silicon Valley is half-staffed by Asians.
  2. Almost all private schools in Scotland ape public schools in England in training for the professions. By that, they mean lawyers, doctors, diplomats, financiers, high-ranking civil servants. They do NOT mean engineers, scientists, craftsmen, creatives and certainly not anything smacking of sweaty toil like joiners or masons. Although once the privately educated might have dedicated their lives to selfless work in the colonies, today, it’s about getting into a highest-paying professions.
  3. This, in turn, skews the whole attitude in Scottish education to think that the academic is the only field that really matters in education. There is no such thing as a private school for mechanics. Yet Germans value skilled workers on a par with professionals and there is no implied social inferiority. As a result, British engineering has retreated to a few specialties while Germans export their handiwork throughout the world.
  4. Private schools believe the Curriculum for Excellence is catching up with what has always been ‘their’ philosophy: “commitment to developing successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens and effective contributors.” But there is much more to it than that. Even if Scotland does not fly the Old School Tie quite as blatantly as England, the small size of the Scottish ‘village’ means it is no co-incidence that a similar proportion of QCs, board members, CEOs, mandarins, etc here went to private schools as happens in darkest Home Counties.
  5. The sheer inequality of levying fees and the paucity of bursaries means a rich elite have an inside track to semi-exclusive training grounds for ‘movers and shakers’ and all that state education has tried, private schools’ small classes, incentivised teachers, ambitious parents and brutally competitive culture continue to make them a bastion of privilege. Bursaries are rarely given at primary school level so the privileged few have all the advantages before the less well off have a chance of attending.
  6. For that reason, how private schools have charitable status under OSCR is a mystery. Their fees verge on the outrageous. Starting with Fettes at £30k, the rest of the ‘top ten’ are all over £20k and even day pupils save barely £6k on such sums. Were that all, most families would be struggling. But add in uniform, sports kit, activities, trips, clubs, etc and the bills are more than most earn, let alone can afford.

It is clear that the Scottish elite look after their own. Private education is so integral to their identity that all threats have been quietly seen off. But the average state school pupil suffers as a result. If the best and brightest are constantly creamed off into the 21st century answer to a Spartan Military College, they are not there to inspire and compete with their peers. Instead, they become inculcated in the same culture that did so much to ossify and damage Scottish manufacturing after the war, leading to rust-belt disasters from which we are still recovering like UCS or Linwood or Kinlochleven or Ravenscraig.

It’s time Scots bit the bullet and treated private schools like the businesses they are and exposed the sham of their perceived advantage by taking education in a direction in which most advanced North European nations have already gone: treating academia as just one of many career paths, not all of which are defined by exams and league tables. Engaging parents in their share of bringing up their own kids as assiduously as private school parents treat their own ‘investments’ would give most—not 5% of—pupils the ‘private boost’.

About davidsberry

Local ex-councillor, tour guide and database designer. Keen on wildlife, history, boats and music. Retired in 2017.
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