The argument about private schools tends to run in cycles, and currently we are back in a bashing phase. The distinguished social historian David Kynaston recently published ‘Engines of Privilege’ with the quite gentle subtitle ‘Britain’s Private School Problem’. Another, rather more polemic book by Robert Verkaik is entitled ‘Posh Boys: How England’s Public Schools Ruin Britain’; its cover rather cleverly has the word ‘Run’ with the ‘I’ graffitied in. Many of us who work or worked in private schools might start off by saying, ‘Look, they’re not all posh and they’re not all boys’ but I’m inclined to think Mr Verkaik might not be all that interested in the well-rehearsed argument about scholarships and bursaries and diversity. The current crisis in the Tory party, featuring a public school stereotype of awful proportions who, as I write, is almost certain to become Prime Minister, doesn’t help. For the moment all private schools are Eton and all their pupils are Boris, bumbling along spouting Latin and about as far from normal as the average serial killer.
There are two different questions asked about private schools in Scotland, and the first is in regard to their charitable status. With the removal of business rates relief, they are now sort of half charities. In practice, some independent schools are quite clearly charities, and others are not. Their lumping together into a ‘sector’ doesn’t help but, in any case, the answer, as far as I can see, is to make all schools into charities. Why not? They provide education – quite clearly a charitable purpose; all universities are charities; and it would stop the charade of state schools paying rates which are given to them by the council which collects them.
The far more interesting question is whether private schools are actually better. Of course, the exam results are often better, but then private schools are mainly academically selective, they often have excellent facilities, they virtually always have smaller class sizes and very often they pay their staff more which may also have an effect. They are less tied, if tied at all, to national initiatives; they are ‘independent’ in terms of the curriculum at least to a certain extent: many of us would say that was a good thing. They tend to get very good reports when they are inspected. Even in economic times which are far from easy, most private schools are doing well, with some parents (including some of the ‘posh’ ones) spending every last penny on fees. When I was meeting parents who were thinking of sending their kids to the school which I used to help lead I often said ‘it’s a lot of money – think about what else you could do for them with all that cash.’ But they came anyway and I can honestly say I never met a parent who, thirteen or six or two years later said ‘Well I’d rather have had really fancy holidays and a bigger car.’
Again, the critics of independent education will say, on the face of it very fairly, that it all comes down to per head spend. If the average pupil in the average school in Scotland has £6,800 a year spent on her or him, and the average private school pupil has nearly twice that, aren’t things obviously going to be better? And it’s true that if spending of state schools in Scotland doubled overnight, things would improve in lots of ways – facilities, curricular range, subsidised trips, special educational provision, etc etc.
However, let’s ponder this question for a minute – are there things that happen in most private schools which could happen in most state schools without an extra penny being spent and which might provide some ‘value added’? Here are some suggestions: insist on stricter uniform rules and make sure they are applied (in situations of real need, schools should supply uniform); establish that schools are, among other things, workplaces, and make sure that young people, particularly at the secondary stage where it becomes their responsibility, get to school on time; have clear rules in place about the use of mobile phones (which are banned entirely in French state schools). In general, on the disciplinary front, strengthen the rights of Head Teachers to ensure that their schools are happy and safe places for all pupils – most private schools in Scotland very, very rarely actually expel anybody, or even ‘ask them to leave’ (i.e. let the parent remove them before they are expelled.) Even so, the threat is there and it helps.
Next, as I have commented before, strengthen the provision of extra-curricular activities in state schools, to encourage confidence and teamwork and to build the esteem of pupils who are talented in these areas. In time, make it part of a teacher’s contract to do extra-curricular work. This, more than anything else, would help to close the poverty-related attainment gap.
Finally, think really hard about what it is that children are actually doing in their later years of schooling, and make sure that, within reason, it’s always tied to their ability, needs and interests. Redirect resources towards vocational education and run special courses for academically gifted students.
The existence of private schools has had a bitter political edge in Scotland throughout my lifetime and historically. A long time ago, well before the SNP had any realistic chance of power, a senior figure in the party was asked if they would abolish private education. No, they replied, but private schools would disappear because state education would be so good. Now that, in truth, would be a remarkable thing, but it’s no closer to happening now than it was fifty years ago when Winnie Ewing promised it. I believe that the Scottish government has the power to make it start to happen, by taking some of the leaves out of the independent sector’s lengthy, and pretty successful, book.