Brown misses the point about why parents opt for private education It's not facilities: it's the ethos of achievement
SCOTLAND is in the process of a social change so profound but so unobtrusive that its full effects may not be felt for years.
As house prices and mortgages have risen, more and more families have entered the child-care trap: both parents go out to work to earn enough money to pay the bills and cover the mortgage, putting their children into paid child care. Child care is expensive. It is not unusual for parents with two children in full-time nursery places to pay 15,000 a year for the privilege.
Some look forward to the time when their children are of school age and they are freed from this financial burden, but others, an increasing number, take a different view. They work out that, having managed to cover the costs of nursery fees, they can keep going and cover the costs of private school fees in the same way. The average annual fee for a private day school in Scotland is 5,205. Suddenly, the high-achieving private schools, which once appeared unattainable, are now within reach.
About 172,000 children up to the age of five are now in child care or with childminders in Scotland. Its impossible to say how many are in fully-paid child care and how many are in partially-paid child care, but even if it is only half of this number, that still means that the parents of about 85,000 children are already paying fees of one form or another. There are also 31,416 pupils at independent schools in Scotland, the highest number for eight years. At a time when school rolls are falling, independent schools are booming.
The figures themselves do not even tell the whole story. Some of the more popular private schools in Edinburgh have waiting lists so long that children have only a one-in-four chance of getting accepted at P1.
It is no coincidence that the upsurge in demand for private school places is replicating the demand for nursery provision. Parents who used to have a principled objection to sending their children to private schools have changed their minds. It is almost as if the act of handing over a cheque to a nursery once a month has washed this principle away. Private schools, which used to be seen as the last bastions of elitist privilege, have become financially accessible and socially acceptable.
SNP leaders, to their credit, do seem to have responded - at least in part - to what is happening. Fiona Hyslop, the education secretary, has announced plans to increase the provision of free nursery places, saving families another 400 or so for every child over three in a nursery. Ms Hyslop has also moved her party from its traditional, hostile, approach to private schools by refusing to take action against the charitable status enjoyed by private schools - despite the pleas of some of her colleagues.
But Gordon Brown still seems to be off the pace. He has declared his desire to raise the level of funding in every state school to the level of the private sector, building state-of-the-art facilities and gleaming new schools everywhere - as if that will miraculously erase all the differences between the two sectors.
In doing so he is demonstrating that he misses the point completely. The reason that parents send their children to private schools is not because the facilities are better than their state counterparts, because often they are not. It is because, on one hand, private schools have lower class sizes but also, and possibly more importantly, because they instil an attitude of achievement from day one, demand hard work and enforce their rules with discipline.
WHEN Tony Blair was at Fettes, conditions were primitive in the extreme. Pupils slept on rock-hard, horse-hair mattresses in draughty rooms, and the classroom facilities were archaic. Yet Mr Blair, like so many of his privileged school colleagues, went on to a good university. Their success had nothing to do with the amount of money being spent on facilities and infrastructure and everything to do with the ethos of achievement at the school.
Simply throwing money at state schools will not make them as good as independent schools, and demand for private education will continue to rise until the politicians in both London and Edinburgh realise that.
The Labour-led governments, north and south of the Border, have been quite happy to reap the benefits of the booming housing market for the last ten years. What is less clear is whether Gordon Brown and the Labour Party are prepared for the much subtler, but probably more influential, social changes which have been brought along in its wake.
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