Let’s Level Up, not Dumb Down

The previous blog “Our Private Fount of Inequality argues that a major contributor to inequality of opportunity to become a leader in Scotland stems from a self-reinforcing establishment, based on attendance at private (i.e. ‘fee-paying’ or ‘independent’) schools. The case was made to remove to counter this by removing charitable status from such schools as a first step to rectify ‘systemic inequality’. While accepting this step as one possible move, a reader of this blog, long committed to improvement in education, took the trouble to comment at length. The key point made was that improvement to standards in the state sector must precede any meaningful adjustment to the private sector for educational improvement (and related social equality) to be achieved. What follows below is an interpretation of his contribution:

Private schools are a major contributor to educational standards across Scotland. Their pupils consistently perform well in national examinations, university entrance ad subsequent careers. What can be said to distinguish private from state schools is their mantra that ‘the world is your oyster’ rather than ‘the oyster is your world’. They offer smaller class sizes, many extra-curricular activities (especially sport) and a more robust governance. The ‘establishment’ networking effect referred to is actually diminishing over time.

Scotland publishes annual ‘league tables’, ranking exam results achieved. If you took out the top twenty state schools: Boroughmuir, Jordanhill, James Gillespie, North Berwick, etc. (all with affluent catchments), those state schools remaining would provide only a small proportion of the country’s leaders.

The question is: why is the overall education provided by state schools generally not comparable to that in the private sector. The quality of teaching staff and the personal commitment of each teacher may be comparable. Facilities vary, but in many state schools they are comparable. It is quality of leadership, in school administration and in guidance provided by education authorities, where the problem seems to lie.

As an example, response to the Covid pandemic was more effective in the private school sector than in most state schools, which is not explicable by differing financial resources. Council-controlled education authorities seem hamstrung by a culture of ‘not getting it wrong’, rather than ‘getting it right’. The resulting weak leadership, a dither when faced with the unfamiliar, puts state school pupils at a disadvantage. 

The case to continue charitable status may be weak, as unequal pupil opportunity undoubtedly contributes to social inequality. But, before any change to their charitable status is made, the financial and other implications need to be researched and evaluated.  Below are questions that require answers before any removal of charitable status from private schools should be considered: 

  • Are there adverse economic and social consequences, locally or nationally? 
  • To what extent are fee paying schools dependent on their charitable status?
  • How do fee-paying schools contribute to their wider communities?
  • How could this contribution be beneficially expanded? 
  • Which schools and where may close as a result
  • What facilities lost as a result? 
  • What would be the likely effects on local employment?
  • Would a smaller, more expensive fee-paying sector be perceived as more ‘fair’
  • How many more pupils will the state have to cater for if closures take place? 
  • How can specialist pupils (e.g. those with a particular talent) be developed as well in the state sector as well as at present in a private? 
  • Which social groups will benefit most and which will suffer most? 
  • What is the likely net impact on state tax revenues?
  • What are the ramifications for the tax status of other educational institutions, such as the Russell group of universities, whose intake from fee paying schools is disproportionately large

Removing charitable status in Scotland alone appears more of a flag-waving exercise than offering real economic and/or social benefits. If such a change were confined to Scotland, private school there would be put at a serious disadvantage to much more numerous private schools in England. The removal of charitable status would be easier to support if it were implemented uniformly across the UK.

Many private schools, already impacted badly by Covid, and especially boarding schools in rural areas, would no longer be viable and have to close. This would adversely affect local employment.  Parents who could afford it would send their children south of the border.

Other measures beside removing charitable status should be considered in parallel. For example, ‘school empowerment’, to reduce the Council’s role could replicate the initiative common in private schools and equalising opportunities. Fee-paying schools are often selective in their intake and more ruthless in dealing with pupils displaying behavioural problems. Extending this to include expulsions is likely to meet opposition from the present Scottish Government and from teaching unions for two reasons, at least:

  1. The principle of inclusion, irrespective of pupil behaviour
  2. Ingrained attitude of teacher salary based on length of service, not on performance

Teaching unions have been contributor to private/state differences, but it has been local authorities who have been complicit in not requiring more engagement and initiative from union members since well before the McCrone Agreement.

So, do we need private schools? Having fewer private schools, or even none at all, might level educational standards, but downward. On the other hand, it would also introduce a more vociferous lobby to raise standards; private sector parents tend to be vocal, engaged and less tolerant of poor school leadership. 

Fewer private schools would require a corresponding increase state education provision. Would this constitute educational improvement? Were private schools to lose their chartable status, the increased tax revenue would not necessarily accrue to education. The net result may result in a ‘dumbing down’ rather than a ‘building up’.  

About davidsberry

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